Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comicpalooza Recap Video and Photos

Photos are available on our Flickr Page.

Also you can discuss the Comicpalooza demonstration on this CD thread.

- Spectrum

"Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much." - Helen Keller

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Comicpalooza Day 2

We had our biggest day of the weekend with 12 FRC teams represented and several VEX teams.

Teams in attendance
118 - Robonauts
624 - CRyptonite
1429 - KAOS
1477 - Texas Torque
2585 - Bellaire Robotics
2587 - DiscoBots
3103 - Iron Plaid
3335 - Cy-Borgs
3735 - Klein Bots
3847 -Spectrum
4587 - Jersey Voltage
5287 - FLARE

Students after playing Laser Tag

Father points out the robot action to his son

Klein Bots working on their robot

A view from behind the drivers

Introducing new people to FIRST

Children are ready to feed the bots and watch them score

Group Picture

Helping a wrestler with their workouts.
More photos are on our Flickr Page.

- Spectrum

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” - Albert Einstein

Friday, May 23, 2014

Comicaplooza Day 1

 Today was the first day of Comicaplooza 2014. It was great being able to bring FRC and VEX robots to so many people and we get to do  it some more over the next 3 days.

Setting up the FRC robots

Setting up the FRC robots

VEX and VEXIQ Demo

Walter E Jones, the first Black Power Ranger, driving our robot

- Spectrum

“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little.” - Montaigne

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Jenny Beatty - This Is How I Work

Official Logo Large Ink Jet Printer.png
Jenny Beatty has been working in public service for a very long time. She started directing her efforts to FIRST over 14 years ago. She is the co-founder of NEMO (Non-Engineering Mentor Organization) and a critical volunteer in the Baltimore area. Let's hear more about how she works and how she got involved in FIRST.

[Responses from September 15, 2013]

Name: Jenny Beatty
CD Username: RoboMom
Current Gig/Job: Volunteer Maryland Coordinator
Alma Mater/Degree: BSN - BS in Nursing from Syracuse University; MPH-Masters in Public Health from The Johns Hopkins University
Current Team(s): They are all my teams
Former Team(s): Team 007
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Hobbies: Hiking, Cooking, Yoga, Reading – a lot!

What inspired you to do what you do? Tell us a story.
I have been committed to public service and giving back since I was a teen. I was in the National Health Service Corps  - sort of a Peace Corps for health workers in the US. I am a big fan of AmeriCorps.  I think this country would be well served by having mandatory national service.  I’ve been a life-long volunteer.

I know there are some people who know from an early age what they want to do, but I think most evolve in the journey. I believe figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as important.  I’ve learned to trust my gut and be willing to take a chance.

I actually dropped out of college with only a few credits to go to take a less than minimum wage job washing dishes in a place I fell in love with. This ended up being a very smart decision, but no one thought so at the time. Because I was in the mountains and working with different agencies, I got trained as an EMT for search and rescue. This training led me to thinking about other careers. I did end up going back to college, but into a different major (nursing) because I wanted the flexibility to be able to travel, to work and live different places and with different types of people. I then discovered I really didn’t like the hospital environment, but I did like public health and research. One experience usually opened doors to another.

I’ve been fortunate to have a life filled with interesting work experiences and have experienced different cultures. I have been a commissioned officer in the USPHS and an RN in various settings –  tiny/remote and huge/urban. I've worked as a forest ranger, as a park ranger, at a weather observatory, as an official taste tester for a large corporation, with medical students, and as a program coordinator for many research projects at large universities and  agencies. I have also spent a bit of time on evaluating various organizations and services.

The road map is a little winding, but sometimes that's the way life is. It’s a big world out there.

When I was introduced to FIRST in 2001, I thought, “Wow – look at the opportunities here for lots of kids.” What I was not expecting was to get sucked in from the mentoring and volunteering perspective. The robotics competition world has introduced me to hundreds of fascinating and passionate people.

In robotics as in life, I am usually rooting for the quiet teams and the little guys. I am fascinated by the different types of people who are drawn to this program. I get the attraction for the engineering types, but I have also seen the lives changed of students who have gone on to other fields like psychology, special ed teachers, graphic designers, communications, and even lawyers. The teamwork and problem solving skills introduced in FIRST were the hook for me.

Robotics should be hard work, but it also should be fun, especially for the mentors. As soon as the hard work really outweighs the fun, it is time to step back.  Let’s just say I've met my fair share of burned out mentors!

What is your day job, and how’d you get there? 
I was just hired by Volunteer Maryland as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. Volunteer Maryland is an AmeriCorps program through the Governor’s Office. I have been placed in a new nonprofit –STEMaction -where I will be helping develop infrastructure and recruit, coordinate, and train event volunteers and mentors across all four FIRST programs.  

How I got here is a story involving more than a decade of volunteering for FIRST and VEX Robotics.

The robotics timeline:

2001: Discovered FRC as a team parent when oldest son joined a team.
2003: Team 007, out of pure desperation, asked me to “help” as a key mentor. I was clueless as to what I was getting into.
2004:  Invited to join the original class of FIRST Senior Mentors I retired my Senior Mentor business card in 2009, but still stayed involved. Started NEMO with Kathie Kentfield and joined the Chesapeake Regional Planning Committee.
2005: Joined the FLL Planning Committee and continued to serve as a judge advisor and event advisor in Maryland.
2006: Helped create the Baltimore Area Alliance. I am a co-facilitator for the BAA this year.

I continue to be involved with all the committees listed above after all these years. Event roles over the years for FRC include Volunteer Coordinator, Inspection Manager, Judge, Ambassador, and mostly “Other” and behind the scenes. I will be adding FTC to the menu this year.

Since 2009 I have also been involved with VEX. I have been an Event Partner and advisor locally for event planning for the past 5 years. I have been the Robotics Events Director for Baltimore City Summer Schools using the VEX platform. I spent 3 fun years as a National Judge Advisor for the VEX World Championship and somehow found my way into the STEM Hall of Fame.

What is your favorite story to tell about robotics? 
There are so many! Swapping stories, especially over adult beverages after a long day of volunteering, has got to be one of my favorite parts of being involved with FIRST and robotics programs. So many student, mentor, and event stories! Some of them are inspiring and many are stories of lessons learned. Many of these stories are very, very funny. I am a fortunate girl to have so many belly laughs.

But here is one of the important stories for me.

Back in 2003-2004 there really was no such word as non-engineering. I was searching the CD forums and the FIRST website and trying to figure out where the advice was to help with the stuff I was doing with teams. I started communicating with a mentor in California and another one in Connecticut who seemed to be asking the same kinds of questions I was on the forums. During a discussion on the phone one day with Kathie (we had never met) we decided what was needed was a support group for outsiders like us and jokingly named it with a made-up word – the “non-engineering” mentor organization. NEMO.  We had no idea where this would go.

NEMO now has hundreds of registered members, and thousands of downloads of mentor written papers off the website. It is grassroots at its finest. But I believe many NEMs don’t get the recognition and respect they deserve for the contributions they make in the FIRST community.

Another favorite story which is much shorter:

Having Woodie’s wife Margaret say to me, “Of course I remember you. You are the only person who has ever asked me for my autograph. “

What's your favorite robot that you didn't help build? 
I know this is shocking!, but I have never really helped build a robot. I have driven one a couple of times. But I can still answer this.

The wood robot Team 007 built in 2003. The team had a really really tough year with lots of cards stacked against them. This robot kept falling over on the ramp at the grueling off season at the Maryland State Fair  (2 days of competition, but with corn dogs, funnel cake, floods in the NASA tent, and hundreds of people wandering in trying to figure out what the heck was going on next to the Tilt-A-Whirl and Exhibition Hall.)  Next thing I know there is the sound of sawing wood in the pits, the students chop the robot in half and the team goes on to be on the winning alliance. Problem solved.

What apps/software/tools can't you live without? (Work/Robotics/Home) 
Gmail, dropbox, Iphone, sharpies on a lanyard.

What's your workspace setup like? (Work/Robotics/Home) 
I have a lovely office – it feels like a tree house. 

I also have a work bench in a basement with the tools of my trade. 

In this photo I spy - my fishing vest with 13 pockets, event crate with all sorts of supplies, my O’s and Raven’s silly hats, NEMO buttons, and all my old business cards from when I was a Senior Mentor. And lots of hand sanitizer.

What do you listen to while you work? 
I am usually listening to WTMD an independent radio station in Towson MD. or on Martha’s Vineyard.

What’s your schedule like during build season? 
Mostly the same as the rest of the FIRST season – which is pretty much 11 months/year. This year with my new job I will likely have some involvement with 30+ events for FIRST programs in Maryland and more than 700 volunteers. Lots of emails, outreach events, recruiting and networking events. And driving. I have a Prius, with the tags “ROBOMOM.”  I often have people waving and honking at me when I am driving. Do they know me or do my tags just crack them up?

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else
Don’t tell anyone but getting people to agree to do stuff before they realize what they actually committed to. I also have a reputation for asking the really hard questions which often make people uncomfortable.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
Pick your battles carefully.
Don’t do anything when the babies are asleep that you can do when they are awake.

What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Spending a couple of days by myself. If there is a casino nearby - even better.

Fill in the blank. I'd love to see ________answer these same questions.
Mark McLeod, head mentor for 358 

Things I seem to say a lot:
You can’t make this stuff up.
How did I get here?
My life is a Venn diagram.
Getting stuff done.

Anything else you want people to know about you? 
I have two terrific sons who are a lot of fun to be around, and a patient amazing husband who puts up with me as long as I don’t talk robotics at the dinner table.

During competition season I don’t do high fives or shake hands. It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s just I learned by eliminating these friendly gestures at events I caught a lot less infectious diseases. Remember I have a graduate degree that included a lot of epidemiology!

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” 
- John Lennon

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Justin Ridley - This Is How I Work

Justin Ridley is our second mentor from FRC#118 The Robonauts. He is another FIRST success story, having started on a FIRST team in high school, mentored a team in college, started his career as an engineer, and continues to mentor a team now. Justin is the key man behind 118's recent run of exceptional reveal videos. You can hear about his job at NASA, how a skiing accident brought him into robotics, and more.

[Responses from October 21, 2013]

Justin Ridley
Name: Justin Ridley
CD Username: Justin Ridley
Current Gig/Job: Robotics Engineer at NASA/JSC
Alma Mater/Degree: Michigan Technological University / B.S in Biomedical 
Current Team(s): 118 (2005-Present)
Former Team(s): 27 (1998-99), 221/857 (2000- 2004)
Location: Houston, TX
Hobbies: Traveling, Playing Hockey, Reading

What inspired you to do what you do? Tell us a story.
My sophomore year of high school, my math teacher (Woodie Flowers award winner, Kyle Hughes) asked me to join our school’s new robotics team. I declined because I wanted to spend the winter on our school’s ski team instead. It turns out I must not have been a very good skier because I ended up breaking my leg during a race. With skiing out of the picture, I decided I might as well join the robotics team.

There are a lot of stories about FIRST changing people’s lives, and I feel like mine is probably pretty cliché. But cliché or not, it’s just true. I didn’t have any real interest in engineering prior to FIRST. With my gimp leg, I found myself in an environment that slowly changed the way I thought about things. I had fantastic mentors on Team 27 and due to them, and the program, I learned that engineering was definitely something I wanted to pursue. This led me to go up to my mentor’s alma mater, Michigan Tech, and study engineering. Three other alumni and I started a FIRST team up there and it has continued affecting my life since.

Being at Michigan Tech I had the opportunity to apply for a co-op at NASA down at the Johnson Space Center. This allowed me to get my foot in the door for a full time job here, which I love. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for FIRST. I can probably say the same for that broken leg, but I like to give most of the credit to FIRST.

My story has inspired me to continue mentoring students in the hopes I can help them make similar stories of their own.

What is your day job, and how’d you get there?
I started answering that question above. After coming to NASA full time, I started my career at NASA as a Flight Controller for the International Space Station (ISS). For about 7 years I worked with the group operating all of the life support systems on ISS from Mission Control. During this time I volunteered as a mentor on The Robonauts (118). After years of working with the other mentors on the team, they convinced me to transfer to where they do their day jobs, the robotics group here at JSC. Our job is basically to build really cool robots. It’s like FIRST with a bigger budget, and I love it.

ISS Mission Control Room

What is your favorite story to tell about robotics?
Like most of our peers, there are too many stories to pick one favorite. A lot of my favorites involve the intense moments between matches of a tournament, making repairs, talking strategy, etc. Back in ’08 our robot, Ballacuda, had a crab drive we had built for a few years. Something within it broke during the Lone Star tournament and in the process of fixing it after a match, we induced some strange electrical problems. One thing led to another and mechanism after mechanism seemed to have some issue. I specifically remember somebody yelling, “Just tell me what we have on the robot that works!”, which space nerds will recognize is quite similar to a Gene Kranz quote from Apollo 13. Even with all the stress and excitement, I couldn’t help laughing at the time. We struggled through each match, trying to get things back to 100%. At one point we sent the robot out with only three of the four wheel modules… bobbling around the track. There have been many intense moments between matches since then, and once in a while I like to jokingly yell out that quote while there are a dozen hands in the robot frantically trying to fix something.

What's your favorite robot that you didn't help build?
Chief Delphi’s (47) 2000 robot. Back then we didn’t have all the motor options we can utilize now. Building complex mechanisms was a much more difficult task and robots were often a lot simpler. Simple, however, was not part of 47’s vocabulary in those days. The arm/manipulator on this thing had like five different motions to it. It would snake down to fly under the bar and then extend back up to dump balls, all with a swerve drive underneath. One of my favorite FIRST memories would be watching one of the first elimination rounds of their first tournament. After dumping a load of balls they swerved over to the opponent’s goal and started sucking their balls out. Almost nobody in the stands had ever seen them do this, or even know it was possible (they hadn’t used that feature until the finals). Needless to say the crowd went absolutely nuts. This robot always serves as inspiration to me… keeping it simple is great and all, but sometimes it’s fun to shoot for the moon and really do something crazy.

What apps/software/tools can't you live without? (Work/Robotics/Home)
I use this all the time:
The couple of things it doesn't have, I added myself. There’s probably an iPhone app with all this info, but there’s something about having a sliding chart in your hand that really makes you feel like you’re doing some real engineering.

What's your workspace setup like? (Work/Robotics/Home)
Nothing too special about my workspace. Generally a mess of papers, parts, random nuts, bolts and tools, all of which prevent me from finding my trusty TI-89 calculator and Mitutoyo calipers when I need them.  

What do you listen to while you work?
Spotify. I have a fairly eclectic musical taste. I’m a big fan of music festivals, such as Sasquatch or Austin City Limits. Look at the lineup for any of those from the last 10 years and there’ll be a lot of stuff I enjoy. I also listen to NPR a lot, and sometimes I’ll bring up something like The Jimmy Fallon Show on Hulu and listen to it in the background… what can I say, I enjoy distractions.

What’s your schedule like during build season?
Officially our schedule is MWF from 5-9 and 12-9 on Saturday. Unofficially… well let me just say that after 16 years I have not yet figured out an appropriate robot/life balance during build season. I think because building these robots just demands so much. One thing I love about 118 is that we’ve got incredibly dedicated people involved. That dedication is contagious and there’s usually people working on some part of the robot 5-7 days a week, many times very late into the night.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I wouldn't say I’m the best at anything. The other 118 mentors would tell you I’m really good at a week 3 panic attack about the direction of our robot and if we’re going down the right path.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
Nothing specific comes to mind, so I’ll share some advice I wish I would have received. If you’re a high school student about to start college, take a break from FIRST. It’s too hard to be a mentor, keep your studies up, and enjoy life the way you should be in college. In addition, don’t stress about graduating as early as you can. Go out and get internships and co-ops, study abroad, take extra classes. In my opinion, all of these things are way more important (especially the co-ops) than getting into the real world a year or so earlier.

What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
In the off season I see quite a few movies and watch a lot of TV. I’m sure there’s something better I could be doing with my time than catching up on Breaking Bad or binge watching The Wire.

Fill in the blank. I'd love to see ________ answer these same questions.
Dennis Hughes of Team 27. He taught me a lot back in the day and has plenty of good stories about robots.

Anything else you want people to know about you?
In 2005 I made a short video just for our team of our robot at the 3 week mark in order to get everyone excited about our progress. I continued this the following years and this evolved into the Robonauts release videos. Almost more than building the robot, I enjoy making the robot videos. Our team has put a priority on trying to make our robots look good, and showing them off in our videos. In the last days/hours of build season when we should be fine tuning mechanisms and getting some drive practice, we instead spend that time shooting down helicopters, launching prototypes through driver stations, and making sure the robot lights are working just right so we can get the perfect shots of it driving around. In other words, our priorities are a little out of whack, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” 
– Winston Churchill

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Summer Plans

Spectrum is going to be busy this summer. We finally uploaded the archive of our build blog to Chiefdelphi.

Our full calendar can be seen at

This month we have our end of year banquet on the 20th. That weekend we are running a very large demonstration at the Texas International Comic Convention Comicpalooza, we'll have 13 FRC teams there over 4 days. There will be over 30,000 people in attendance to see all the action.

In June we have a few small demonstrations setup early on but we'll mostly be focused on preparing for the Texas Robot Invitational, an off-season even we are hosting on June 21st. The planning is still on going but Houston area teams should expect an invitation sometime this week or early next week. This event is invitation only. The event will be free for all participants and it will have a full FRC field.

We also are attending RoboReboot in Ft. Worth on June 28th. More teams should sign up for this event. It's going to be a blast.

July has us hopefully attending IRI and we are also running a CAD workshop for teams on July 22nd-26th. We are also hosting a mentor workshop on July 11th-12th for mentors from around the state. We also run our free SPECTaculaR summer camp for two weeks in July at the Spring Branch Boys and Girls Club.

We end the summer with the Texas Robot Roundup in Austin the, defacto Texas State Championship, August 1st and 2nd.

After we come back to school we will attend the Red Stick Rumble in Baton Rouge, LA, on August 31st.

We have a very busy schedule but we're excited.

- Spectrum

Synergy is the highest activity of life; it creates new untapped alternatives; it values and exploits the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between people. ~Stephen Covey