Every Friday night when the clock strikes 7 p.m., dozens of students flood in to Mountain View High School to get back to work. Whether it's drilling, cutting or bending metal parts, designing software or working on electrical wiring, members of the school's Spartan Robotics team seem to have no problem committing the next five or six hours to tinkering when most students are more than happy to leave school behind for the weekend.
Whatever is driving students to commit countless hours to building a robot that can perform complex actions, both autonomously and with a remote control, it appears to be infectious. Over the last five years, Spartan Robotics has exploded in popularity, growing to a roster of 50 students, and now ranks among the top teams in the world. Even students and parents who have long since graduated out are sticking around for another season.
Spartan Robotics, affectionately referred to as Team 971 by the membership, participates in a global competition known as First Robotics, where students have just a couple months to design, build and test a robot -- normally the size of a dishwasher -- that can perform various actions to earn points. Among other things, this year's robot needs to be able to pick up a large number of Wiffle balls and launch them precisely into a bin.
If there was ever a way to expose students to all aspects of hands-on STEM education at the same time, the controlled chaos of work that goes on between January and March is pretty much it. Students are constantly engineering parts of the robot, creating prototypes -- some of which are rapidly re-designed or replaced -- and writing up software that allows the robot to function on its own using sensors. The team relies on mentors, many of whom are parents and returning students, to guide it and ensure that a robot is complete, bagged and ready to go in time for the first competition.
"It's really exciting, especially this early in the season," said Chris Mintz, a third-year member of Spartan Robotics, during a frenzied day of work on Jan. 20. Details on this year's competition had only been revealed a few weeks before, and the team was knee-deep in creating robot components and experimenting to see what works. The team has a reputation for being a little too ambitious with designs, Mintz said, and has a tendency to create complex, over-engineered parts. But with such a big roster this year and so many students showing up each day, improvements are constantly being made.
"A team full of minds is always better than one," he said.
Hundreds of teams from all over the world participate in the FIRST competition, and Spartan Robotics currently ranks among the best. In 2014, the team took first place at two regional competitions and participated in the final championship game in St. Louis, Missouri, before narrowly losing in the finals. But the recent success and intense student interest in Spartan Robotics has been just that -- recent.
The team's roster has grown exponentially in the past few years, said Austin Schuh, who participated in his first Spartan Robotics game 13 years ago and continues to help out. Back then, he recalled, the team was only eight students strong and had to work out of a science prep area in the middle of a classroom wing. Each day the team would have to clean up and clear out before class the next day.
Now the team has its own home in a small classroom in the back of the campus, full of tools, machine parts, a home-built Computer Numerical Control (CNC) router, and an entire lineage of robots from past years. The CNC router means the team can built some of its parts in-house, and doesn't have to rely solely on metal fabrication shops in the Bay Area during a time-critical phase of the competition.
Schuh's job as the lead software mentor is to help students write the C++ coding that tells the robot what to do during the competition's autonomous round. Many of the students on the team this year -- about 75 percent of whom are freshmen and sophomores -- don't have a strong coding background, but it's an essential part of the competition, he said.
"The robot has no chance of aiming the balls without some sort of software," he said.
Driven by passion
On any given week during "build" season, students and mentors put upwards of 30 hours into designing, building and testing the robot, with the most progress taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. But team members don't seem to look at the major time commitment as a sacrifice -- they see it as an opportunity to work on something that matters.
Brian Silverman, who has been on the team for seven straight seasons -- four as a student and three as a mentor -- said it's always fun to work on something that you know will be a finished product, and students get motivated to put in the time and effort when they realize they can actually make a difference in the final design.
Spartan Robotics also gives students a chance to diverge from learning about engineering and computer science in a classroom. Instead, Silverman said, students take part in a hands-on experience where there is no right answer, and the team has to get creative in order to solve real-life problems.
"I want to help show more kids what engineering is really like, where we don't know what the answer is," Silverman said. "You find out if you've got the right answer if it works or not."
Silverman, like Schuh, can't seem to part ways with Spartan Robotics. After graduating from Mountain View High School, he continues to help out as a mentor even after he moved to the East Coast for college, tuning in via Skype and working remotely. Part of the reason why Spartan Robotics transitioned into a highly competitive team and grew in popularity around the 2011-2012 school year, he said, is that mentors like himself kept coming back and building on the team's legacy.
"With more mentors, we've got more bandwidth to work with students who come in and don't know what to do," he said.
For some students, the real action starts at the competitions, which includes a complex combination of on-the-fly adjustments to the robot, scouting other teams and driving the robot during the main event. Sabina Davis, a freshman and team captain, said she picked up a passion for driving back in sixth grade when her brother was on the team, and she got a chance to test drive during a practice game in 2013. She's had a presence on the team ever since, starting out as an off-season driver and pitching in during the build season.
"I was only 4-foot-11when I started," Davis said. "It turns out small hands help with a lot of the electrical work."
Being on the drive team is a little nerve-wracking to think about what's at stake, but it's easy to get in the zone and focus on playing the game, she said. When the competition is over, it's hard to remember how things went.
"You never remember what happened after the match," she said. "That kind of feeling, when you tune everything out and feel like you are the robot, is what makes it all worth it."
The growth in the popularity of the robotics competition has been staggering in the Bay Area over the last five years, said Janet McKinley, the regional director of FIRST for Northern California. It's not uncommon for teams based in Silicon Valley to double or triple in size in just a few years. Nearby teams like Bellarmine's Team 254 -- also known as "The Cheesy Poofs" -- have also thrived and now rank among the best in the world.
Competitions in the area, including the Silicon Valley Regional in San Jose and the newly-added San Francisco Regional, are expected to attract anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 spectators, McKinley said.
Although it's hard to pinpoint what's causing the sudden boost in interest, McKinley said most of the outreach and advertising comes from the bottom up. Students and individual teams are able to drum up excitement about the robotics competition, even for teens who may not have a strong interest in engineering.
Mountain View High School team, in particular, benefits from having a returning cast of mentors that is relentless at building up passion and enthusiasm for the competition, said Steve Silverman, a mentor and father of Brian Silverman. He said a lot of it comes directly from the lead mentors for the team -- Wyn and Michael Schuh -- who manage the team every year, even though their children have long since graduated out of Mountain View High.
"The Schuh family has really set the tone," Silverman said. "It's almost like a cult -- you start out just for fun and you just get sucked in."