All-Girl FIRST Tech Challenge Team Puts New Technology to the Test
Mark Atwater posted on December 01, 2015 |
Contestants in this year's competition sound off on Android/Snapdragon pairing

We were excited to hear about new technology being incorporated in the FIRST Tech Challenge in our recent discussion with Don Bossi, president of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The Android/Snapdragon pairing has the participants even more excited, and it is our privilege to discuss the new platform with Lingrui Zhong and Emily Nadler, members of the all-girl team, Parity Bits, which has beta-tested the technology. Their feedback and insights shed light on the impact the FIRST Tech Challenge has on the teams and how the updated programming is changing the game.


To help us know a little more about your group, would you mind sharing a bit about who you are, what grade you’re in and what your background is? For instance, do you have any experience with programming, robotics, electronics or similar fields? 

Lingrui: I am a senior at Lexington High School and a programmer on the all-girl FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team, Parity Bits. I joined the team, which was just started, when I was a junior. I learned a little bit of C++ during my sophomore year and just began learning java in AP computer science. But that is about it. I had no experience in any of the hardware and didn't even know that LEGO could be so "high-tech."

Emily: My name is Emily Nadler and I am currently a senior at Lexington High School. Before joining the FIRST Tech Challenge teams at my school (first 2 Bits and a Byte during my sophomore year, then helping found Parity Bits my junior year), I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to go into engineering. As a child, I always knew that I had an affinity for STEM, however I did not know any more than that. My parents, knowing that my sister and I would destroy any “girly” dolls or toys, instead bought us action figures, LEGOs, toy trucks, and innumerable remote controlled devices. Up until 6th grade, I lived in Framingham and went to private schools. I excelled at my studies, especially math and science. It truly was not until I came to Lexington High and joined the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics teams that I realized that I adore engineering. Engineering has become so much more than simply a field of study dedicated to building new devices; rather, it has become a way of thinking. Engineers tackle open-ended problems with knowledge, creativity, and ingenuity, traits that are now highly valued across fields. Since joining the teams, I have also pursued my own projects, such as taking apart and improving the old RC toys I received as a kid, soldering my own electronics, learning how to arc weld on my grandparents’ farm, etc. I also taught myself Python the summer before my junior year, took introductory programming classes in C++, and I am now learning Java in my AP Computer Science class. I am also taking the Introduction to Robotics course at my high school.


What brought you to FIRST Tech Challenge? Was it something you were naturally interested in? Did anyone encourage you to give it a try?

Lingrui: I originally wanted to join the co-ed team 2 Bits and a Byte during my sophomore year, yet I didn't have that much time to commit. Mr. Harris, my computer science teacher and the team's current mentor, told me that Lexrobotics was forming a new team that includes only girls and encouraged me to be one of them. Since everything was all so new, I decided to give it a try.  Prior to that, I was interested in making things in general, but I had no idea about what engineering was and I didn't know that most of my interests or hobbies could be described and explored through engineering. I now have a better understanding of the process of engineering and all that it entails through my FIRST Tech Challenge experience, and I know that engineering is the term to best describe what my interests and hobbies are.  

Emily: The reason I had not joined during my freshman year was that I thought I was too busy with sports. However, once soccer ended in November, I felt somewhat lost and bored. At that point I turned toward music (I play the tuba) and was able to move up the ranks within my school’s music department. Although this interested me, I still felt that it was not the perfect fit. Thus, during the activities fair my sophomore year, when I was encouraged by a friend to join the robotics team, I did, and I loved it. I was also able to balance sports and robotics by finding a sport that did not conflict with the times that robotics meets.


What do you think of the Android/Snapdragon platform introduced this season? Has it been easy to use? Can you compare it to other platforms?

Lingrui: The only other platform that I have used for FIRST Tech Challenge was the NXT system. Of course, the new platform isn't as perfect and smooth as iOS/Android systems that we use in our daily life, but overall it is a huge improvement over the old system. As a programmer, my favorite part is that the Android devices have a much faster processing speed which allows us to implement other off-the-shelf sensors and other electronics. Programming wise, once people get used to programming in java, the rest are pretty straight forward. However, frustration does occur as we get familiar with the system--sometimes there are some connection problems that we can only hope for it to work. When everything is connected as expected, it is a smooth experience to work with the new platform, but there are glitches that teams will run into as they get deeper into the app development that the developers might not expect.

Emily: The Android/Snapdragon platform that was introduced for this season has been a great advancement for FIRST Tech Challenge. It has been much easier to use than the NXT system and far more rugged connection with its use of Wi-Fi direct. It will take some getting used to for teams, but once they understand it I’m sure that they will prefer it over the NXT based system.


What kind of programming language have you been using? What sort of programs have you written?

Lingrui: I mostly program in Java. I also learned MatLab, C++, and RobotC. Besides standard AP Computer Science curriculum, I wrote a basic encryption system as the final project.  I devoted most of my time to robotics during the season, and during off-season, I try a little bit of everything else. Over this summer I developed some programs in MatLab that simulate radar movement around a body for a lab. Currently, I and some of my friends are working on a Google Cardboard project.

Emily: The Android-based system uses Java as the main language for programming. Teams may also use MIT app inventor if they are not comfortable with line by line coding. Java is also the language that my AP Computer Science course is in, so even though I have not been a main programmer for my FTC team, I still understand most of the programs that are loaded onto our robot. In the past I have also programmed in Python and C++, getting as far as reading and writing to files and recursion.


What are you doing to prepare for this season’s competition? Do you have a strategy for scoring points? For instance, will you focus on completing as many lower point value tasks as possible, or design a robot that is particularly good at the harder tasks?

Lingrui: Similar to last year, our team is divided into sub-teams such as hardware and multiple software teams working together to generate ideas and make things happen. We had a brainstorming session right after the challenge was released. For now, our focus is on a simple chassis that can score on the lower field and mostly autonomously. But at the same time, we encourage the rest of the members to keep prototyping for mechanisms that can be used in the later game on the ladder and score points.  

Emily: While we are still finalizing this year’s strategy, I will not be able to tell you what we are doing. However, last year, we focused on being a team that could easily complement most of the other teams in the competition. We designed a rugged robot that focused on lower point value tasks, but was able to complete them efficiently and consistently. We made it to the Super Regional Championship, only one level below the World Championship, and even had the opportunity to showcase our beta testing work at Worlds. One of the awesome things about FIRST Tech Challenge is that because there are so many ways to score points, every team can build a completely different robot and follow a unique strategy. Teams can have fun and build whatever they want, learning along the way.


Will this new platform allow you to increase the complexity of your design? Has it changed the way you think about mobile technology?

Lingrui: Our team is still in the brainstorming/prototyping period, which none of the details are finalized yet. As far as I know, since the motor/servo/sensor controller system is fairly similar to the NXT system, plus there is limitation in the game itself, I don't think the design method will change drastically besides game-specific mechanisms. 

The new platform definitely makes app development more accessible and seems less intimidating. Even as I become more proficient in programming, I still consider app development as a goal in the far future. The new platform provides a chance for me to participate and experience some back-end development, and getting to know Android Studio led to the start of the Cardboard project.

Emily: Teams should be made aware that there is slightly less storage space on these devices compared to the NXT. The new system allows for COTS (commercial off the shelf) sensors to be used, thus teams may be able to have a better field sense through these sensors. I have already worked with remote app-controlled devices (I have a rover that connects to my iPad via Wi-Fi that streams live video, IR, etc.). Nonetheless, the transition to smartphone controlled technology is nice to see in FIRST Tech Challenge.


Do you think the skills you are learning through FIRST will be useful later on? What kind of job do you think you might want in the future?

Lingrui: The skills will be useful for sure. Besides experience in app development, I get used to the procedures of engineering  brainstorming, prototyping, failing, and repeat  on top of the things I learn from each failure. I also learn how to cooperate with other members on the team. As for my future career, I haven't decided between different domain of engineering and computer science plus design double major, but I will definitely be in a position where I can continue making things.

Emily: The skills that I am learning through FIRST Tech Challenge are definitely going to be applicable later on. FIRST Tech Challenge has helped me think outside the box, and provided me with useful mechanical skills that will certainly help me in an engineering field in the future. I would like to major in engineering in college, preferably robotics engineering, and work at a technology company.


Is there anything else you’d like to say about the competition, the new technology or your experience in general?

Lingrui: The new technology has a lot of potential. Though for now it is imperfect, it should not be limited to the current state, so I hope that the platform can continue to be developed even after its first release to inspire more people into engineering and keep connecting us with the higher end of technology in the future.

Emily: Without a doubt, robotics has been the highlight of my high school career. Every day, I count down the minutes for the bell to ring, allowing robotics to start. I love being able to work with everyone on my team and create something truly incredible within a few short months. I hope to continue this through college and a future career.


A very big Thank You to Lingrui and Emily for their time and thoughtful responses. Best of luck this season!


Image Credits: Adriana M. Groisman (top image) and FIRST

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