Lower Merion Township, PA -- One of the most fascinating ways we measure growth and success as a society is when imaginative science fiction concepts become mundane pieces of our reality. On January 5, 2019, I got a front row ticket to watch how Lower Merion High School Students are on track to do just that.

For the first time in their 13-year history, Lower Merion High School's award-winning Dawgma FRC 1712 Robotics Team hosted the national kick-off event beginning the competitive season of the FIRST Robotics season. This event brought teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware to the school to pick view a televised unveiling of the season's rules and goals, and to pick up their materials so they can take them back to their home base and begin a rigorous 6-week pre-season. In that pre-season, the robotics teams have to prototype, test, prepare and complete their robot for the full season of competition.

And that's where far-fetched science fiction starts to become an everyday reality for the team members, their mentors, and the fans.

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The season unveiled on January 5 in the Lower Merion auditorium is like something out of Star Trek. It's titled "Destination: Deep Space" and is sponsored by the Boeing Company -- one of the leading innovators in U.S. space exploration for the past five decades and the people currently making the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with NASA to take people to and from low-earth orbit.

The premise of the FIRST competition this season, according to the 80+ page game manual released January 5 to more than 38 teams, stated: "we join two competing ALLIANCES collecting samples on Planet Primus."

"Unpredictable terrain and weather patterns make remote ROBOT operation essential to their mission on the planet. With only 2:30 until liftoff, the ALLIANCES must gather as many CARGO pods as possible and prepare their spaceships before the next SANDSTORM arrives."

What that means, said Bob Bellini, head mentor for the Dawgma team at Lower Merion, is that this season competition will split up into one alliance of three teams versus the second alliance of three teams. These two sets of alliances will have two and a half minutes to complete objectives and score points against each other.

Each competition also includes 15 seconds of autonomous robot time. That 15 seconds, explained Bellini, "is one of the biggest challenges in the competition." The robots are on their own, he said, and have to score as many points as they can during the 15 seconds a pilot does not have control.

This particular challenge resonated with me on a grand scale. China just put a mission on the far side of the moon. The United States has a new mission on Mars looking deep into the soil. And last year's mission to Enceladus detected geysers on the moon of Saturn. All of these landmark missions have stoked a curiosity around the world in further exploring our solar system. And each of these missions relies heavily on robots.

The skills honed by the FIRST Robotics competition are the exact skills that will lead to more landmark discoveries in space. And this Boeing-sponsored season of competition is directly tapping into that imaginative spirit, bringing the experience and teaching the skills needed to get the current generation of students on track to explore space.

"Ninety-three percent of our students go to the STEM field," said Stacy Levitan, Executive Director of the Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence and the mother of Dawgma's 2018 team captain Maya Levitan -- who herself is a freshman at Rice University studying bioengineering.

That's one of the most inspiring aspects of this program. It's called the "sport of the mind," and you see a direct connection between this club and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in our country.

One of the core reasons the team exists, said Bellini, is so that it "can introduce robotics and get students interested very early in STEM."

FIRST competitions start at elementary school levels -- using LEGOs in some competitions -- and carry on through middle school and then into high school with more complex challenges requiring bigger and bolder engineering and robotics feats.  

The mentors are another example of how dialed in this program is for students who want a career in any area of STEM. Bellini is an industry professional who works at Lockheed Martin. Another Dawgma mentor, Sean Lavery, works for the Department of Navy. The school treats these competitions with the spirit and seriousness they deserve, so both of these mentors are both coaches that earn a small stipend.

"We put in close to 500 to 700 hours per year," said Bellini. This dedication has helped the team succeed recently.

2018 was a banner year for Dawgma, as they not only qualified to go to the World Championship for the fourth time in their history but overall they placed 8th out of 67 teams -- their best overall finish ever. The theme in 2018 was an arcade game, and the Dawgma robot was named Everest.

The 2019 competition, with its space theme, has officially begun. Dawgma is on the clock. And on January 5, after the rules were televised, the packs of parts were handed out to 38 teams.

Dawgma then gathered its forces and quickly got started on their task after that. The students and their mentors piled into room 112, the Rich Kressly Robotics Lab.

Part classroom, part shop this room has the feel of a NASA command center as team members strategize and plot their moves for the season.

"We have six weeks," said Bellini. "But after six weeks, by February 21, we literally have to put the robot in a bag."

Bellini was describing the rules where the team has to seal the robot in a see-through bag. He said at that point they can look at their creation but can't touch it until the day of competition. He added they could withhold about 30 pounds of material outside of a bag, but the other 120 pounds or so of the robot must be sealed for competition.

So in this "pre-season" Dawgma is part NASCAR garage, part NASA command center, and all teamwork. They'll be using the full set of machines, drill presses, and materials in the robotics room to build and test prototypes. Work out the bugs in their plans. And get their 2019 robot ready to handle Boeing's space-based challenges.

The first step on their road to the new world championship begins on March 8 in Westtown. This qualifying event is "where we bring the final robot after the six week build period and compete against other teams," said Nathaniel Chin, Dawgma's  Director of Operations.  

The season is a small set of qualifiers that lead to a set of playoffs on bigger and bigger scales until the field is built for the world championship tournament.

"Dawgma will compete in the first two events to see if we will do well enough to get to District Championship," said Chin. "If we do well enough there, we move onto World Championships which is hosted in Houston and Detroit."


UPDATE: We have updated this story clarifying the source of some of the quotes and information.

Where are they now?

Here's a look at what past Dawgma team members have gone on to do in college.

Student School Area of Study Graduated
Maya Levitan Rice University bioengineering Class of 2018
Max Roling University of Pennsylvania systems engineering and computer science Class of 2017
Liam Rossman University of Chicago economics, statistics, and public policy Class of 2015
Gabriel Krotkov Carnegie Mellon University statistics and machine learning Class of 2017
Hannah Si Cornell University environmental engineering Class of 2017
Miriam Glickman University of Pennsylvania mechanical engineering​​​​​​​ Class of 2017
Joshua Ren University of Pennsylvania mechanical engineering​​​​​​​ Class of 2017
Journey Byland University of California, Davis aerospace engineering​​​​​​​ Class of 2017


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