This weekend, the Lower Merion FIRST Robotics Competition team, Dawgma 1712, won the Autonomous Award sponsored by Ford and reached the quarterfinals of the District Competition at The Westtown School in West Chester.  Thirty-two teams competed in a series of 64 qualification matches, pitting three teams against three other randomly selected teams through Saturday and Sunday morning.  Elimination rounds began Sunday afternoon, after the team learned that their mentor, Sean Lavery who works at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia, was awarded the prestigious Donald Bowers Inspiration Award for a person who has inspired the team.

The teams have had since January to design and build a robot that will succeed in this year’s game challenge.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the theme of this years’ challenge is Destination:  Deep Space, which involves FIRST Robotics Competition teams collecting samples on Planet Primus.  The competing teams’ 125 pound robots have to collect as many cargo pods (kick balls) as possible and place Velcro “hatch panels” on rockets during a two and a half minute match.

At the Westtown School, Dawgma competed against teams hailing from high schools and clubs all around Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. For most of the teams, this is their first step in trying to qualify for the FIRST Mid-Atlantic district championship tournament. For the past three years, Dawgma has started their season at the Westtown district event.

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The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is an international high school robotics competition that aims to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators. As part of Dawgma’s mission to “demystify STEM” and FIRST’s vision to “change the culture” to one that celebrates science and technology, Dawgma actively seeks to partner with organizations to help build an appreciation for STEM-fields among populations that often fall outside the typical scope of STEM organizations.

One organization with which Dawgma has partnered is Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI), an agency that “sets out to dispel the myth that adults with developmental disabilities can’t live and work in the community independently,” says Stacy Jarett Levitan, Executive Director of JCHAI.  JCHAI provides the supports all over the Philadelphia metropolitan area so that adults with developmental disabilities, including autism, can live the lives that they dream of.

Dawgma and JCHAI have created a course for the JCHAI Transitions program, which teaches young adults with developmental disabilities independent living and vocational skills.  JCHAI teamed up with Dawgma because “JCHAI has the philosophy that we should erase barriers and develop unique ways to teach JCHAI members vocational skills that could be useful in a variety of settings,” Stacy Jarett Levitan, Executive Director of JCHAI, explains. 

The Dawgma team was eager to teach the JCHAI members these skills and instill in them the same love of STEM that they have.  Nathaniel Chin, Director of Operations and an original member of the Dawgma group teaching the JCHAI members, explained how he felt when the JCHAI members were able to advance to helping to build the Dawgma robot:  “They helped us build mecanum wheels for our intake. It was really cool to show them that what they built made it on the real robot.”

As a result of their multiyear collaboration, JCHAI members learned enough skills to assist at the Westtown competition with everything from keeping the robot “match-ready” in the pits to assisting with data collection and analytics in the stands.

Dawgma heads to the next District Competition in Seneca, NJ in a week.  More information about Dawgma, FIRST, and JCHAI can be found on their respective websites or by following Dawgma on Twitter or Instagram at @DAWGMA1712