Mentors inspire future Corps researchers

Published May 24, 2018
Mentors inspire future Corps researchers

Two mentors from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and three team members are pictured with their robot at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics World Championship held in Houston, Texas, April 18-21. Mentors Donald Cargile and Chuck Dickerson are shown with Sam Greer, Shavan Manusukha and David Osburn, student team members.

VICKSBURG, Miss. (April 27, 2018)--Diane and Donald Cargile, Ginny and Chuck Dickerson, and Tisa and Ben Webb, long-time U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center employees, mentored the student Team 456 Siege Robotics to successfully compete at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics World Championship in Houston, Texas, last month.

“This group of students went up against the highest-ranked team in the world, and made them work really hard for their win,” said Chuck Dickerson, lead mentor. 

The mentors guided Siege Robotics to win its first regional competition in nearly 19 years of team history. That competition, which took place in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 23-24, qualified the student robotics team to attend the world championship in Houston and challenge teams like Team 254, Cheesy Poofs, from San Jose, California. 

‟What’s amazing is that Cheesy Poofs are a ‛super-funded’ team with a tremendous amount of resources, and our Vicksburg, Mississippi, students met them almost blow for blow. Cheesy Poofs’ corporate sponsors include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ames Research Center, Apple, Google, and Lockheed Martin.”  Dickerson said.

Shavan Manusukha, ERDC Pathways student at the Information Technology Laboratory and captain of the team, said, “It was a great experience playing against an undefeated team that competes in the world championship every year. We kept up with them by one of the narrowest margins in the competition,” he said.

The Vicksburg-Warren County community team is in its 19th season of participation in the FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST’s mission and the goal of Siege Robotics mentors is to encourage interest and promote success in science, technology, engineering and math.
Diane Cargile said that throughout the season, the mentors teach the students that winning the competitions isn’t the top priority; it’s putting forth the best effort and competing well. 

Dickerson agreed, “This is a pure research experience. The students come up with ideas, experiment with them and see what happens. Mentors don’t make decisions for them, but we guide them only to keep them from heading down dead-end lanes.”  

The mentors’ philosophy is a proven formula for success. In its history, the team has won more than 40 awards, winning each of the five major engineering awards several times. In the last three years alone, the team has won nine awards in six different categories, including the Industrial Design Award, the Innovation in Control Award and the Excellence in Engineering Award. 

There are approximately 25 students on the team every year. The education level of the students runs the gamut from sixth graders to high school seniors, with most students participating over the course of four years of high school. The team is a community team, with students from throughout the Vicksburg area, including public and private schools; home-schooled students are also welcome. The team accepts students from outside Vicksburg as well.

Once build season starts at the beginning of January, the team only has six weeks to design, build, program and test the robot. The challenge, or the ‘bot’ they have to build, is a secret until the game is revealed during a global webcast reveal called Kickoff. 

The ERDC provides a laboratory build space for the team in Building 1006. During build season, the students work on Saturdays starting from 10 a.m., Sundays starting from 1 p.m., and on weeknights, starting from 5:30 p.m. The team works until late in the night every night. 

The challenge is different every year but usually involves manipulating some sort of game piece, such as an inflatable ball; this year, milk crates covered in fabric were the game pieces. 

“The robots are very complex and have lots of mechanical sub-systems, pneumatics systems, electrical power systems, and sensor feedback. The students are using mechanical engineering skills to build a robot that works, electrical engineering skills to wire it, and computer engineering skills to program the machine to do what they want it to do,” Dickerson said.

Sam Greer, a Pathways student at the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory and the mechanical lead for the team, said that he enjoys the challenge of the experience. 

“There are few extracurricular activities that present a technical challenge to students,” Greer said. “Most activities, like sports, present more of a physical challenge.”

Cargile sees the students grow extensively throughout their robotics team experience, even in their communication skills. 

“The students have to talk about their robot with the judges,” she said. “Learning how to convey information effectively and under pressure builds confidence.”

The mentors donate thousands of hours of their personal time and thousands of dollars in personal income each year to the effort.

“It’s just something we really believe in,” Dickerson said. “We see it as an opportunity to spark interest in STEM and help build mature, responsible human beings in our community. We hope that the students enjoy the experience along the way, and maybe they’ll want to come back to us in the future as ERDC researchers.”