Acronyms abound as 50-member high school team prepares for national showdown in St. Louis

After spending the fall learning the needed skills and devoting January and February to building, testing and practicing, the members of the team called MOE 365 are ready for two months of competition, concluding at a national championship meet in St. Louis from April 22 to 25.

Trying to understand what these 50 high school kids are up to requires a bit of imagination—somewhat like a group of muggles playing quidditch for the first time against Harry Potter and his Hogwarts classmates.

MOE 365 (the letters are an acronym for Miracles of Engineering) is a Wilmington-based First State Robotics team in the FIRST Robotics Competition. (FIRST stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) First State Robotics is a Delaware nonprofit fostering a love of science and technology. As the winner of the FIRST Robotics
Competition’s Chairman’s Award in 2007, MOE 365 is guaranteed a place in this year’s nationals, but that assurance hardly diminishes their drive for excellence in playing the

game this season.

Sam Stevenson, 17, a student at Sanford School and co-team president of Team "Miracle Workerz," remounts the air compressor on"ToMOEhawk." (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Sam Stevenson, 17, a student at Sanford School and co-team president of Team “Miracle Workerz,” remounts the air compressor on”ToMOEhawk.” (Photo by Tim Hawk)

This year’s game—there’s a new one every year—is called Recycle Rush and its goal is a little more complex than hitting a ball over a fence or kicking one into a net. The playing field, 27 by 54 feet, is filled with plastic buckets, 12 by 17 by 28 inches, and 32-gallon recycling bins, as well as those foam noodles more commonly found in swimming pools. The idea is to stack the plastic totes as high as possible, put a recycling bin on top of the totes, then stuff the bin with the pool noodles, which, for the sake of the game, are called “litter.” All in two-and-a-half minutes.

Here’s the catch: No hands allowed. All the stacking and stuffing has to be done by a robot, which the kids on the team have to build.

One more thing: for the first 15 seconds of the game, the robots move autonomously, following pre-programmed instructions with no human assistance. Then the students take control for the rest of the match.

And to make it a little more interesting, this isn’t a mere one-on-one competition. Instead, it’s what the FIRST organization likes to call a “coopertition.” Each side in the game is called an alliance, and it’s made up of three teams and their robots, which have to determine a strategy to work together on very short notice. MOE 365 competes in FIRST
Robotics’ Philadelphia region, which includes New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

Robotics competitions aren’t for everyone, but Haley Chambers, 16, a junior at A.I. du
Pont High School, knew it was what she wanted to do after she saw robots in action when
her father took her to Take Your Daughter to Work Days at the DuPont Co.’s Chestnut Run facility, where he is a consultant in the seed laboratory. “I fell in love with it, and then my older sister joined the team and I was hooked,” Chambers says.

Now she is spending three nights a week at Chestnut Run, where the MOE 365 team is
building and testing its robot, named ToMOEhawk. (Yes, this group understands branding,
so they make MOE part of the name of each of their robots, and the team is so close-knit
that it likes to say, with apologies to Sister Sledge, “We are FaMOEly.”)

The group began preparing in the fall, with evening training sessions in their areas of interest. MOE 365 cofounder John Larock, a DuPont recruiting manager, heads a team of volunteer mentors who oversee subgroups that have specific responsibilities. The computer-assisted-design (CAD) team designs the robot, the mechanical team builds it, the electrical team handles the circuitry, the programming team creates the commands that will make it move, and the web/public relations team chronicles and publicizes the entire effort.

“We have a lot of interdependent parts; now we have to put them together,” Larock
tells team members as they finish dinner in the Chestnut Run cafeteria before starting
on the evening’s work. “Three weeks from now, you’ve got to put your robot in a bag [ready for competition].”

As each unit works on its assigned tasks, they are aware of the need for
collaboration. Hannah Ni, 16, a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington, explains that after she and other members of the CAD team design parts of the robot —its movable arms, for example—they hand off their work to the mechanical team to build it and see if it will work. If there are problems, it goes back to the CAD team, with suggested modifications.

“For everything the robot can do, if an arm moves or a wheel rolls forward, there’s a program behind it,” says Ben Hylak, 17, a senior at Salesianum School, who started out in electrical and is now in his third year on the programming team.

There’s a lot of trial and error involved in the process, he says. “You have to work out the bugs, and you’re constantly adapting as you see how the game plays out.”

When the whistle sounds and the match starts, a lot of the responsibility for the group’s success is in the hands of Mahesh Gouru, 17, a Charter School of Wilmington senior, who has been designated the driver. He won’t be behind the wheel of ToMOEhawk, because the robot has no steering wheel, but he will be controlling the computer that makes it go.

Members of the program team work on the autonomous program, which will allow the robot "ToMOEhawk" to run 15 seconds by itself. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Members of the program team work on the autonomous program, which will allow the robot “ToMOEhawk” to run 15 seconds by itself. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

“We don’t want to reveal too much of our strategy,” Gouru says, “but we call it ‘jaywalking,’ making a pattern like the letter J around the field to sweep up as many totes as possible.”

Yes, there is a lot of strategy involved in the game. That’s why, at the meets, some members of the team are scouting future opponents competing elsewhere in the arena.

Because the game is new every year, Hylak says, “It’s not like basketball or football, where you can look at film of other teams to see what they’ve done before.”

“We have to scout every team that comes to the event—watch the matches and review the video,” Gouru adds.

During the meets, some members of MOE 365 fine-tune the robot between matches; others are detailed to the “mobile pit,” assisting members of other teams that might need support for their robots.

As in any competition, there is a need for referees, and Carol Perrotto, a retired DuPont chemist who is one of the group’s mentors, often gets that assignment.

“There are rules,” she says. “Your hands can’t touch the robot. You can’t deliberately destroy another robot, and you can’t use your robot to pin an opponent in a corner or against a wall.”

MOE 365 has been in operation for 16 years, Larock says, and it is different from many of its competitors in that it draws participants from 15 schools (including home-schooled teenagers). Participants don’t have to be Delaware residents. One member of this year’s team is from North East, Md., and several years ago a team member traveled three days a week from Harrisburg, Pa., to participate in training and robot-building sessions, according to John Wilkens, another cofounder and moderator of the MOE 365 media team.

As the daughter of the group’s founder, Nina Larock, 18, a senior at McKean High School, says she has been part of MOE 365 “since the beginning.”

“Look in the old team pictures and you’ll see me,” she says. This year she is working on the media team, updating the organization’s website and creating video footage that will be edited into a presentation to be shown at meets so other teams can see what went into putting ToMOEhawk together.

“It’s more than building robots,” Wilkens says. “We’re a cohesive unit.” Participating in the team “is a great opportunity to meet people. It wouldn’t happen if we didn’t build robots together,” Chambers say. “We spend so much time together that we are family.”

That sense of family extends even to graduates of the team. Ryan Quirk, 21, a University of Delaware senior majoring in mechanical engineering, participated in competitions with MOE 365 for two years while he was a student at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School. He credits that experience with helping him develop his creativity and his ability to work with others to solve problems.

“Every year at UD, we have a project that requires you to build something,” he says. “Here we learned how to cooperate, how to bounce ideas off each other.”

That experience prompted Quirk to return this year to serve as a volunteer advisor.

“I learned a lot from everyone who was a mentor,” Quirk says. “This is the first year I’ve come back. Why not give back, and help these kids learn some of the things I got to learn?”