Library robotics team: The droids they’re looking for

Susan Lauricella, head of Teen Services at Wilton Library, could no longer avoid it. Her husband, Paul, kept nagging.

“I’m great with poetry programs, craft programs, and things like that,” she said. My husband said, ‘Where are the tech programs? The geek programs?’ I told him to figure something out.”

Paul Lauricella is an engineer, and what he figured out, along with the help of a neighbor and his wife, was a robotics team. An information session at Wilton Library on Wednesday, May 22, outlined the specifics of the team, which will join the national program FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Specifically, the team will be in the FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC.

“What I like about FTC is it’s not just about building a robot,” Ms. Lauricella said. “It’s not just about competing. It’s about becoming a better person. They have this term, called ‘coopertition.’ You compete and you cooperate. If you’re at a tournament and somebody loses a piece, you help them. It’s more than just building and competing.

“They call it gracious professionalism,” she added, using the term coined by FIRST national adviser Dr. Woodie Flowers, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Wilton Library’s robotics team is open to students from seventh grade to seniors. The team will consist of 10 to 14 teens, with the hope of a broad cross section of students.

“I hope to get a good mix of boys and girls, as well as high school and middle school students,” Ms. Lauricella said. “Not necessarily someone who knows all about robots or technology.  There are a lot of aspects: social media, budgeting, fund raising, designing hats, and more. It’s a very well-rounded sort of team.”

A robot generally starts at approximately $3,000 to build, and while the library has some seed money to start with, the team will be required to raise funds.

Students looking to join the team need to fill out an application and return it to the library no later than Wednesday, May 29. Decisions on team members will be made by May 31, and the kickoff meeting will be June 7 from 4 to 5:30.

An important factor in who makes the team will be a person’s commitment.

“I spoke with a father of a Westport team (the Wreckers, who displayed their robot at the May 22 information session), and he said his son used to play soccer but no longer does,” Ms. Lauricella said. The robotics team takes up so much time, so he had to decide. He also said he got more out of this than he ever got out of sports.”

The team will likely meet one or two days per week in September and October. Tournament season runs from November until March.

“Once you really get into the true build season, we’ve heard, students could be here a lot of hours,” Ms. Lauricella said. So one of my big expectations is that if you want to be on this team, you have to be committed.”

Besides the Lauricellas, Keith Andresen, a retired engineer, is a big part of the foundation of the team. Mr. Andresen and Mr. Lauricella will be among the four or five volunteer coaches, while Ms. Lauricella will serve as the team mentor.

“I’m very excited,” she added. “I think it’s going to be very cool. I’m going to learn something.”

“You have to be willing to be a team player. If you’re about you, then this is not the right place for you. But if you have the drive to get your hands dirty and learn, while being a part of the team, cooperate, and be committed, then we want to talk to you.”

According to FIRST, the FTC level is for those “who want to compete head to head using a sports model. Robots compete on a 12-foot-by-12-foot field in an alliance format against other teams.”

A previous competition had four robots in the ring, with two teams pairing up.

The Wilton team will meet a few times over the summer before it gets to work on building its robot in the fall, after FIRST announces its challenge for 2013-14.