CARY — There it was in front of hundreds of spectators at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena, spinning in circles like a broken wind-up toy.
It wasn’t exactly how 24 Green Hope High School students hoped to enter the world of competitive robotics.
The school’s newly formed team spent countless hours preparing its robot, The Mosquito, to compete against 53 other teams at the regional FIRST Robotics Competition in March.
And then, as the robot glitched before the first match, the team’s hopes of contending appeared squashed.
What happened next surprised onlookers and inspired the Cary community to invest thousands of dollars in the high school club.
The team fixed The Mosquito, battled the tournament’s top-seeded team to a tie and won the Rookie All Star Award – qualifying the Falcons for the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis last month.
More than 400 teams from around the globe competed in the championship; the Cary school was one of only five invited from North Carolina. There are 56 teams in the state.
The competitions are like basketball games. Alliances of teams compete against each other to have their robots place a big ball through rectangular hoops.
The Green Hope team named The Mosquito after the nimble but potentially dangerous insect because, at 51 pounds, it’s about half the weight of most robots. The team’s strategy is speed, and that propelled it to a 7-3 record at the regionals in Raleigh.
The team went 4-6 in St. Louis, but it was enough to grab the attention of judges who bestowed Green Hope with the Rookie Inspiration Award.
The award “celebrates their outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering and engineers within their school as well as in their community,” said Haley Dunn, a FIRST spokeswoman.
Focus on STEM
Green Hope’s rapid ascent required students to demonstrate several traits – including ingenuity, resourcefulness, patience, persistence, critical thinking and teamwork – valued by educators and employers alike.
The effort started in October, when co-captains Griffin College and Jasper Brindis held a technology drive to benefit the school’s computer club.
Then they had to convince one of their teachers, Anthony Pluchino, to change the technology club to a robotics team.
Pluchino told the students he would be their coach only if they ran the team like a business.
So they recruited students to work in one of several departments made up of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer programmers, accountants and marketers.
“Everybody has a job title and job description,” Pluchino said.
Then they had to agree on how, exactly, to build the robot. It wasn’t easy.
“There was mutiny at times,” Brindis said. “Our motto could be ‘Where are the screws?’ ”
After qualifying for nationals in March, the team had just six weeks to raise roughly $25,000 to pay for its trip to Missouri.
“A couple of us didn’t go on spring break and instead walked the streets of Cary, knocked on doors and asked businesses for money,” Pluchino said.
Promoting the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math should be a priority, Pluchino said, because it’s where “all the jobs are going to be.”
College, a junior, said the after-school activity has already contributed greatly to his educational experience.
“I’m gonna use everything I learned here for the rest of my life,” he said.
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht