At Yellowbrick Data, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented hardware and software engineers in the world. This past fall and winter, I volunteered to help develop the next generation of engineers by co-mentoring a Yellowbrick-sponsored, FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics team named the “Bengal Bytes,” here in Sandy, Utah.
If you’re unfamiliar with this program, you may already know about the junior program, the FIRST LEGO League, which was designed to teach STEM skills to elementary students based on LEGO’s robotics platform. The FIRST LEGO League is an amazing program for younger students. It helps them start thinking about design and software programming while not having to worry about the materials they use for building.
The FIRST Tech Challenge is the next level up to that program, teaching students to take things further by allowing them to use a wide variety of materials, sensors, and controls to build fully autonomous robots.
These robots must complete multiple jobs in a short 3-minute time window to earn points and win matches. Along the way to developing their robot, the students learn advanced STEM skills and basic engineering principles. The game itself is exciting to participate in as well as watch.
The Bengal Bytes team this year was small, consisting of only three boys, Lincoln, Christian, Isaac, all enrolled as 8th graders or freshmen in the local middle and high schools. Despite the small size of the team, this team of three created something special that not only worked remarkably well but looked great, too!
The Bengal Bytes’ platform included an FTC robotics kit complete with a Java software development kit and powered by Qualcomm processors. The team had access to a slew of materials that could be assembled, custom-cut, or 3D-printed to meet their design goals. They had step motors and “servos” of all sorts of sizes and shapes, literally hundreds of different parts all with a specific use in mind.
So how did these students not get lost in this maze of parts and equipment? It was simple: they started with some basic engineering principles in mind.
First, they analyzed the challenge at hand. Every year a new game design is presented in the Fall. The 2021-2022 challenge was called “Freight Frenzy.” It was designed to mimic the necessary motion and controls for moving freight around a freight yard.
The team reviewed the game manual so they could understand the points system. From there, they started making game theory decisions: How could they score the most points, in the shortest amount of time, with the least complicated machine to achieve their goal? That was the starting point.
The Bengal Bytes team identified three challenges in the game that they thought they could solve quickly and without a complicated or overly expensive design. They knew they had a limited budget of $3000, which was smaller than the budget for most teams.
The budget constraint also forced the team to keep things simple, and in turn, more reliable. Re-using parts from a previous season, they were still able to re-design the entire robot to be competitive inside the Freight Frenzy court.
To complicate matters, the FIRST Tech Challenge program is also designed to be more than just building robots. The additional requirements teach the students the value of working together towards a greater goal. Teams are given points for team spirit, as well as their ability to explain their design. They also must maintain an engineering journal that shows how they built and refined the design.
Social skills also become critical since each team is randomly paired up with an “alliance team,” and compete as partners in each competition. Each pairing requires the members of each team to quickly discuss what challenges their robot excels at and form a strategy that focuses on each robot’s strengths. Students that are normally introverted or shy are taught the value of communication and it helps them to realize how critical communication skills can be to winning.
The Bengal Bytes team had an excellent combination of both technical and social skills, which allowed them to be part of the winning alliance team at the local Park City High regional competition. In turn, they earned a spot at the Utah State Championship.
Lincoln was great at programming and taught himself Java to program the robot. Christian was super sharp at mechanical design and could quickly calculate gear ratios in his head and how they would affect the drive train or the amount of torque required to control the robotic arm. Isaac was also good at mechanical design work but had strong social skills and excelled at engaging other teams during the competition.
This combination of skills resulted in an alliance invitation to join the final elimination round of the day, ultimately enabling the Bengal Bytes to be part of the winning alliance at the Park City event.
After winning the Park City event, and in the weeks that followed, the team went into overdrive. They refined their design and spent hours practicing their driving techniques. The team dialed in their autonomous programming to pick up blocks and retrieve little yellow rubber duckies on the playing field.
By the time they got to the state championship, which was hosted at the Southern University of Utah, they felt pretty good going into the competition.
The Bengal Bytes did well and placed 16th overall in the state of Utah, which was a great accomplishment given their team size, experience, and limited resources.
Now that the season has finished, they have already started thinking about plans for next season. The students are not only learning but having a lot of fun along the way.
As one of their team coaches and mentors, it was incredibly fulfilling to help shape these future engineering minds. It inspired me to know that there will be some incredibly capable engineers coming through to tackle some of humankind’s biggest challenges (challenges that are only just now coming to light).
I want to thank Yellowbrick Data and its employees for taking an interest in helping to shape the next generation of engineers and providing resources to help these students participate in such a great program.
I also wanted to acknowledge the Canyons School District and Quail Hollow Elementary Principal, Mr. Shad DeMill, for being so supportive of the Robotics team and giving the Bengal Bytes a place to build and practice their skills.
Lastly, I’d like to give one last shout-out to Spencer Clegg, the Bengal Bytes head coach and founder of the team, who put in the effort to create such an incredible experience for our students. It’s people like Spencer who help make this world a better place.
If you’d like to learn more about the FTC program and how to get involved, please visit their website at FIRST Tech Challenge | FIRST (firstinspires.org).