Friday, November 14, 2014

Winnebago High School Robotics Team Tours NASA Robotics Facility in Texas

Last July, Scott Rippetoe, coach of Texas Torque Robotics Team, issued a half-joking invitation to Scott Hill, coach of Winnovation Robotics Team, to compete at their off-season competition in Houston on November 8. Little did anyone know that quick note would turn into an amazing trip for 19 high school students. Both Winnovation and Texas Torque participate in FIRST’s high school robotics programs which are designed to show students that science, technology, and problem-solving are not only fun and rewarding, but are proven paths to successful careers.

When Winnovation approached the Winnebago School District about making the trip, things quickly started falling into place -- Winnebago students did not have school on November 6 or 7 and a team member’s grandmother offered to cover hal​​f the cost of the coach bus.  Then by working with their network of FIRST robotics contacts in the Dallas and Houston areas, Winnovation was able to line up visits to VEX/Innovation First International, one of the leading suppliers of robotics components for high school robotics teams; Texas Instruments’ DMOS6 plant; and NASA Johnson Space Center’s robotics facility. 

Scott Hill observed, “All three tours were very different – VEX is a small factory, Texas Instruments is a huge facility with state-of-the art equipment and processes, and NASA gave us a behind the scenes experience that the kids (and adults) will remember for a long time.” The real highlight of the trip was the NASA visit.

After stopping at Rocket Park for lunch and an up close look at a Saturn V rocket on loan from the Smithsonian, the 19 high school students and their chaperones headed to the facility where the manned rovers are designed, developed and tested. NASA engineers Mason Markee and Lucien Junkin, who coach the Robonauts Robotics Team, explained their program and the rover processes. From there the team headed over to “the rock yard” where every person in the group got a chance to actually drive the rover over simulated space terrain.  Jacob Kahler, a senior on the team, echoed the sentiment of the entire team when he said “that was literally the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” The group also visited the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), an astronaut training facility which consists of a large indoor pool of water where astronauts perform simulated tasks in preparation for upcoming missions. The NBL contains full-sized mock-ups of the International Space Station (ISS) modules and payloads, and visiting vehicles such the SpaceX Dragon. To close out the day, the team stopped by the Robonauts Robotics Team build space to see where a high-school team fully supported by NASA gets to build for the competitions.

The trip started out as a chance to spend a day a competing against teams that Winnovation doesn’t usually see at regional events in the Midwest, but it ended up being so much more.  “Our students had three unique experiences to see what engineering and science look like after high school and college,” shared Polly Kahler, an adult who made the trip. The group also got to compare their local build space, a converted auto shop, with a shop literally designed and managed by rocket engineers. “After talking with their team leaders, we know they have significant funding advantages but the design and manufacture experience our students get also prepares them quite well for college and career."

After a long bus ride and two full days of plant tours, the trip concluded with a full-day robotics competition on November 8.  The wear and tear from the regular season and various off-season events was evident – Winnovation’s robot had already played in 81 matches over five competitions and suffered through various mechanical and electrical issues.  After the qualification rounds Winnovation was in 12th placed and was selected by the #1 alliance for the playoff rounds. After hard-fought quarter and semi finals matches, Winnovation’s #1 alliance faced off against the #2 alliance in the best two-out-of-three championship round.  After breaking the main gear that controlled the robot arm, Winnovation, along with alliance partners Spectrum, Torbotics, and Tompkins Robotics, lost to the #2 alliance finishing in second place. Despite the loss, team captain Bryan O’Hern called the weekend a success, “This weekend was the best I've had in a long time. Got to tour a lot of cool places, met some old friends and made new ones. I'm so proud of this team and everything we've done this season. The coolest thing out of this Texas trip was seeing the new pit crew step up and let us know we’re ready for the next season.”
The group returned to Winnebago on Sunday night and it was back to school today for the students.  The team will meet at 7pm at the 'Bot Shop 110 N. Pecatonica, Winnebago, IL to recap the weekend for those who couldn’t make the trip.  Then up next on their agenda is their annual Flapjack Challenge and Pancake Breakfast at Winnebago High School on Saturday, December 6.  The next competition season starts on Saturday January 3 when students across the world find out what “game” they will be playing for the 2015 season.  Anyone interested in more information about Winnovation or these events can email or visit the team website at For more information about the FIRST program, visit