With nearly all of the two dozen members of the Chariho Chargers FIRST Robotics team available on Wednesday, students met by a half-court practice course designated in the back of the high school cafeteria.
Some tinkered with the mechanical workings of the team's competitive robot, others talked codes to improve autonomous programming, and others presented creative solutions to ongoing challenges. Everyone had a job, however, and each was engaged in work toward achieving the ultimate goal of finishing high enough to qualify for the FIRST Robotics National Championships.
If the students are able to make adjustments after finishing third at a recent state qualifying competition — they finished third despite not yet having the autonomous program ready to go for part of the contest — the squad, Chariho High School/CTC Robotics Team #10773, could finish with its most successful season yet.
"We've come a long way this year toward building something we can be proud of, so to qualify with a top three finish means a lot," said Dylan Fisher, 17, a senior who will attend the New England Institute of Technology in the fall to study software and video game development. "Our goal (in states) is just to do the best we can and see if we can't find a way to qualify for nationals."
The state competition will be held at New England Tech on March 4. This year's event will feature a several-part challenge that includes both relocation of items by driving the robot, and a separate challenge of programming the robot to act completely autonomously based on color commands.
The team has come a long way over the past several months, finding an identity and focus through hours of collaborative work, said robotics mentor Ryan Bridgham, dean of students for the high school and Chariho Technical Center.
Bridgham said the team is a combination of traditional Chariho students and students involved in CTC pathways. The program provides students with an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in working with robotics and coding, offers a chance to find camaraderie with classmates and be part of a team.
"This is an opportunity that gives our students a head start if they are interested in careers within STEM-based professions," Bridgham said. "As a district that focuses on technical careers, it is especially valuable to those students who may be interested in computer design, graphics, drafting and engineering, and other similar fields."
For many of the students involved, the program offers opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise in traditional schooling.
FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is an international youth organization that operates numerous programs, including the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST LEGO League series, FIRST Tech Challenges and more.
Founded by inventors Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers in 1989, the mission is to develop ways to inspire students to seek careers in engineering and technology. According to the organization's website, the philosophy is to compete second and participate with "cooperation and gracious professionalism" at all times.
A four-year member of the team and two-year member of the Chariho Middle School FIRST Lego team previously, Fisher said the team has provided invaluable experience that has helped better prepare him for college.
"There's no question in my mind," Fisher said. "If I hadn't had a chance to learn through these competitions, I wouldn't have developed the skills I needed in order to gain acceptance into (the New England Institute of Technology)."
Already, the group has come a long way since team mentor Jordan Beason, a 2017 Chariho alumni and University of Rhode Island graduate student, was involved in founding the team.
Beason still recalls how he and four others came together during his junior year with a goal of simply building their own robot and seeing how it would stack up against established teams. He smiled and laughed before simply stating, "obviously we weren't very good yet."
Since that time, the team has grown by leaps and bounds. It has a dedicated zone within the cafeteria and enough membership to maintain healthy operations year after year.
"It feels good to be able to come back, share my experiences and be part of the success they are having now," said Beason, who is in the URI oceanography program. "It feels good to see where they have gone from our small beginnings and to be part of something special like this."
Both Beason and Fisher said that there are still plenty of ways for the program to grow moving forward. The team has just one sponsor, so members have expressed interest in finding more community partnerships to aid with the expenses of constructing robots and traveling for competitions.
Bridgham said the team has discussed strategies that include seeking corporate sponsorships and operating social media pages to enhance exposure. The team also has its own website at https://sites.google.com/chariho.k12.ri.us/chs-robotics/home?pli=1.
All three said they also would like to see the team do more to promote female participation — all of the current 23 members are males — and participation in general.
"There are plenty of roles that people could fill, no matter what their talents might be," Fisher said. "There are so many parts here, I feel like we could always use more people and ideas. I encourage anyone interested to get involved."