Awkward Silence, Southern Nye County 4-H’s competitive robotics team, progressed to the FIRST Tech Challenge’s World Championship by winning the state championship for robot performance earlier this month with a record-breaking score of 202 points; only to learn that the event, scheduled to be held in Houston, Texas in July, has been canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns.
“I would say it’s definitely a major disappointment,” said Awkward Silence lead programmer Dylan Riendeau. “We were really looking forward to being able to advance to the World Championships.”
Awkward Silence is one of 160 finalist teams unable to attend the world championships, the fourth and final level of competition in a typical FIRST Tech Challenge season, where they would compete for prestigious awards with other high-scoring teams in various head-to-head robot matches. This would have been the team’s first time at the world championships as well.
“It would’ve been a pretty exciting and new experience, or at least a way to spend time with the team. We like to socialize with each other.” said Kevin Holl, one of nine teenagers that serve as active members of Awkward Silence. “But, it’s also kind of relieving. It’s a pretty long trip, all things considered. There are some positives and negatives to it.”
FIRST Tech Challenge is one of the four programs designed by the FIRST organization, or FTC, a worldwide educational initiative created to get children and teens active in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
FIRST Tech Challenge is one of the more competitive programs, intended for kids aged 12-18, and a “season” typically comprises weekly team meetings and large-scale tournaments held at event centers around the country over the course of approximately a year.
With large in-person meetings being strongly discouraged or even outright prohibited in some areas due to Covid-19 precautions, the 2020-2021 FTC season has provided teams around the world with a unique gauntlet of challenges to overcome, like learning to compete virtually and finding ways to collaborate on a hands-on project while social distancing.
“We were definitely set back a few times because of the pandemic,” said Holl. “Quite a bit of the robot building and refining actually had to be done at Dylan’s grandfather’s house. At the beginning of the year, we did a lot of brainstorming on how we wanted the robot to look and how we actually wanted to design it. We took a lot of time outside of 4-H to complete the robot because there were a lot of times we simply couldn’t go to the 4-H (building).”
“We had to do quite a few meetings outside of 4-H just to be able to get our season moving,” Riendeau added. “Especially in the beginning, when we weren’t able to meet (in-person) at all.”
Of course, a fully-functioning robot capable of performing complex in-game tasks is no easy feat to design, but a serious cost factor comes into play as well. FTC teams commonly hold extensive fundraising campaigns to finance robot development, parts, and repair, another part of the process complicated by the pandemic.
“There hasn’t been a lot of fundraising this season,” said Riendeau. “We started this season with a fairly sizable balance from all of last year’s fundraising, and most of our other money came from donations. Mostly cash donations from Walmart and people willing to chip in fifty dollars here and there. Normally, we’d have car washes or gala events and bake sales, but with the COVID-19 situation these just aren’t possible.”
Despite the unexpected roadblocks, Awkward Silence saw no way to go but up, ultimately becoming the highest-scoring FTC team in the entire state of Nevada in the 2020-2021 season.
“A lot of the highlights are mostly just a new high score,” Riendeau laughed. “When we hit the 175 (during one of the virtual matches), that was pretty exciting. During state championships, in our first match, we hit a 202 (our highest score ever), which was something we’d been shooting for all season. That was very exciting.”
Now in their fourth season as a team, several members of Awkward Silence are approaching high school graduation and will no longer be able to compete in the FTC level of FIRST, which is intended specifically for the high school age group. Despite this, Holl and his teammates insist that the future of Awkward Silence is in good hands.
“With so many of us leaving, it’s a little bit more difficult, but we tried our best to actually prep for new engineers, a new head programmer, and a new driver because those are the main positions that are going to be open,” said Holl.
“There’s going to be a lot more new people working on the robot that don’t have nearly as much experience. To help deal with that, a lot of our team members who are on the team this year and graduating, are going to be sticking around next year to be ‘junior mentors’,” explained Riendeau. “We can help teach them what they need to know to build a successful team.”