New school’s faculty mentoring high school students in global robotics competition
In the near future, when Assistant Professor Lynn Albers’ students are learning and working in new classrooms using state-of-the-art equipment, she’ll look back fondly at the humble beginnings of Campbell’s School of Engineering.
With its official launch nearly six months away, the school has attached its name to one of the world’s largest robotics competitions — the 25th annual international FIRST Robotics Competition, which includes nearly 3,000 teams and roughly 73,000 students and 17,500 mentors from 20 countries.
Albers, an MIT grad who joined Campbell’s faculty in January, is leading a group of roughly a dozen high school students from nearby Overhills and Harnett Central schools. They’ve set up shop in the lobby and kitchen area of Bryan Hall, a former on-campus dorm that now serves as an incubator for new Campbell programs before their permanent homes. The space might be a little cramped — buzzsaws send dust flying just feet from the fridge that houses their cold pizza — but Albers said she loves her space.
“I love it. The kids love it. It’s become a second home for all of us,” said the former Nortel Networks engineer and N.C. State instructor. “We’re spending a lot of hours here over the next few months. We’re practically camping here some nights.”
FIRST Robotics represents the first official outreach project by Campbell’s newest school, which will welcome its charter freshman class this fall. While these young programmers, coders, designers and builders aren’t Campbell students, some of them might be one day. And for them, Campbell would never have been an option had it not been for the school’s decision to welcome engineering into its academic fold.
“This is helping get our name out there,” Albers said, “but more importantly, we’re working with some great kids with wonderful personalities and teaching them how to collaborate and communicate with their peers.”
FIRST Robotics isn’t the “Battlebots” free-for-all you may have seen on some obscure ESPN sub-network in the past. These robots aren’t out for blood — they’re built to solve complex problems.
On Jan. 9, Campbell’s team — like the other 3,000-plus squads around the world — learned the rules and competition specs for this year’s competition. The team was also given its materials — everything from steel, wood and aluminum to foam swimming pool “noodles” — to build its robot and the obstacles it will use to stop opposing teams in what Albers described as a “capture the flag” type of game. Each competition includes three teams against three other teams — the challenge comes not only as a battle of wits but also to see which teams can work well together. Communication and collaboration are just as important as engineering “talent,” Albers said.
“Communication is probably the single most difficult thing to teach people, especially a group like this that tends to be more introverted,” she said. “But this is really bringing out some of their wonderful personalities. Some have come in shy, and they’re encouraged to speak up. Everyone is here to support each other — even our competition. As a rookie team, we’re getting support from local teams that have done this before. They’re offering us their machine shops and anything else we need.”
FIRST Robotics brands itself around “gracious professionalism” and encourages this kind of cooperation between teams, Albers added. The competitions won’t tolerate “trash talk” or chest thumping, and teams that build destructive robots are asked to take their bullies elsewhere.
Campbell will participate in two district events — March 9-11 at Southeastern Raleigh Magnet School and April 1-3 on campus at the Pope Convocation Center. Winners from these events move on to district tournaments and eventually the international FIRST Robotics Championship, to be held in St. Louis this year.
Albers, who is joined by fellow new faculty members Lee Rynearson and Stephen Hasselberg — as well as several mentors and parents — said she likes her team’s chances at doing well in its first year, despite the veteran competition. She said she “struck gold” with two of her mentors — first-year N.C. State engineering students Bailey Blankenship and Troy Luddy — whose team at the North Carolina School for Math and Science finished third in the world last spring.
MORE THAN ROBOTS
Blankenship called the competition “the closest thing to being an engineer in the field that you can get.” That’s high praise for a young man whose team bested all but two in the world last year.
“You’re building a robot from scratch, but it’s not just the building aspect,” he said. “You’re basically working at the equivalent of an engineering firm. You’re working on a team. You’re out trying to raise funds and interacting with donors. We called the vice president of Lockheed Martin when I was in high school, which was one of the coolest things we had to do. The biggest thing I got out of my experience was interacting with the outside world.”
Overhills senior Brendan Resnick serves as one of the team’s designers, and in addition to absorbing knowledge from Albers and mentors like Luddy and Blankenship, his biggest takeaway so far has been learning to work on a team.
“Most of us don’t play sports, so we haven’t been on a team like this before,” he said. “We have teammates who do the programming, those who do the mechanical side, those with electrical knowledge and those like me who know how to do [computer-aided design]. Everyone has to work together to make the machine go, literally.”
Harnett Central junior Aiden All got something else out of his experience — an interest in Campbell University.
“I never thought about going to Campbell before,” said All, sporting a black Camels T-shirt. “Now, it’s definitely an option.”– Billy Liggett
E Week Schedule of Events
Monday, Feb. 22 – E Week Maker Day in Wiggins Library
In partnership with Campbell Engineering, Wiggins Memorial Library will host a special Makerspace activity from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students and faculty who stop by the library can 3D print an E Week keychain, personalized with their name. The library will also have a variety of cool hands-on engineering toys from Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering Gift Guide. Don’t miss the opportunity to try your hand at engineering!
Wednesday, Feb. 24 – Engineering Day on Academic Circle
Campbell Engineering will sponsor hands-on activities from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. in the Camel Room in Marshbanks. Compete in the paper airplane contest, make a simple water filtration system, and decorate an E Week sugar cookie to enjoy. Students and faculty are welcome to stop by between classes for some engineering fun!
Thursday, Feb. 25 – STEM Family Night
The Harnett County NC FIRST S.U.M. Robotics Team #6003, comprised of high school students from Harnett County and sponsored by Campbell Engineering, will host a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Family Night in Carrie Rich Hall from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The event will feature a variety of hands-on engineering, math and science activities (including an oobleck pool – google it) for elementary-age school children in Harnett County and their families.