Robotics team gearing up for next season

With an unusually long “Infinite Recharge” robotics season coming to an end and a new one rapidly approaching, students on robotics team 525 reflect on the experiences and hardships they’ve endured over the past two years. Claire Shaw is a senior student leader on the team. “When the 2020 season ended abruptly, it was really sad for our team. We were fortunate enough to have been at one regional that year before everything was cancelled,” Shaw said. “I remember the day before the announcement was made, being at robotics and feeling super excited about how great our robot was working. All our meetings immediately went virtual and we didn’t meet nearly as often. It was a long time before I stepped back into the doghouse.”

Shaw joined the team her freshman year in 2018, causing her to only really get one “normal” season. As with everything COVID-19 impacted, meetings and progress all seemed to stop in an instant. In normal seasons, meeting attendance was often in the 30s, but according to a mentor on the team, Carmen McIntyre, student attendance in virtual meetings dropped rapidly. “It was very hard to keep the students engaged. We only had about three-five students for each area. While we learned a lot and had a lot of fun with these challenges, it was very hard to keep a connection to the students on the team.”

In between the official 2020 and 2022 seasons, teams participated in “FRC At Home Challenges,” an innovative way around the mass crowd and travel of a regular robotics competition. While students were now able to participate in robotics again, it was in no way normal. 

Even with all of the hardships of virtual meetings, McIntyre said that she is very proud of all the things they learned how to do during this unusual time. “We learned things we had been talking about for years, like the swerve drive, [but] I am happy to be moving onto a new game. One of my favorite things is having the team sit down together and discuss strategy and design of a new robot. We did not get to do this with the second year of Infinite Recharge. My favorite moments came in the time just before we had to stop meeting because of COVID.” 

Meetings eventually started back up virtually, and then finally in person again, but for many, the time in between really took a toll on the passion and excitement of robotics, like Luke Shuttleworth, a junior and student leader on the team. Shuttleworth works mostly with the mechanical and CAD groups to design and build the robots. 

“I think the biggest thing that changed is the virtual meetings. Building the robot is part of robotics, and since we couldn’t do that during the pandemic, it took a lot of the purpose out of robotics during that time.” 

Students in robotics get to choose their field of interest, whether that’s robot design and CAD, mechanical and wiring, finance, programming or painting. However, most of this just wasn’t possible to explore in a season with little-to-no physical meetings until the late winter of 2021. 

Shuttleworth said, “It is a bit sad to watch this season go, mostly because it was the first game I got to participate in. A lot of the best memories are from the very beginning of the Infinite Recharge game. My first kickoff was with this game, and Cobra is the first robot I helped design and build. My favorite memory is when we first built a prototype of the shooter that was held together with scrap pieces of wood, and it worked perfectly on the first try.” 

After virtual meetings ended and normal meetings resumed, the Swartdogs welcomed new students to the team—one event out of many that restored passion and excitement to robotics. Renee Fischer, a sophomore, joined the team at the end of her ninth grade year, the spring of 2021. 

“I was hoping to gain some more experience in the field of STEM, and I heard that the Cedar Falls robotics team was a good one to join. As soon as I showed up on my first day, I felt like I fit right in. The team was very welcoming, and they taught me a lot of valuable skills like working with CAD and learning how to use other tools around the workspace.” 

Since joining the team, Fischer has taken on the role of making sure batteries are charged and ready during competitions and events. 

This past summer, the Swartdogs were able to go to the Rockford Robotics Off-season Competition in Illinois and the Cowtown Throwdown event in Lee’s Summit, Mo.—both of which they won. These two off-season competitions helped the team practice the skills they had learned and formed over the past year of not competing. 

In less than a year on the team, Fischer has already made memories of a lifetime. “My favorite memory that I have of being on FRC so far was going to the Cow Town Throwdown event this year. I had a lot of fun getting to hang out with team members, and best of all, we were on the winning team for the competition. I had a blast, and I can’t wait to go to our next event.” 

Sophomore Alex Demastes joined the team around the same time—as did many of their new students. “I joined 525 just before the start of last summer because I heard it was a good way to learn new skills as well as work with some really great people. My role on the team is primarily helping with the mechanical aspect, but I try to help wherever I can. I have participated in both FLL and FTC, but neither can really compare to the scale and amount of fun in FRC. Competitions are incredibly exciting, but my absolute favorite memories of the team are learning new skills and how to use different tools and then using that to build and repair a robot with friends.” 

While the team is heading toward normality and a new season, 2022 kickoff is closer than ever. With only a month left until the new season begins, the team is beginning to prepare by taking down the field still up from 2020 and planning their own Iowa Kickoff event set for Jan. 8. COVID-19 played a huge role in everybody’s past two years, especially students who lost monumental years of their high school experience—like Shaw. 

She said, “I’m excited for a normal season. The last time we had a full normal season was my freshman year, and now I’m a senior, and I want nothing more than to experience build season and regional competitions and hopefully World Championships again.

Shaw said, “The Infinite Recharge season was really strange, and while this past 2021 season was a lot better than 2020, I’m excited for it to be over. The kickoff into the new season is so close, and I can’t wait to see the new game and challenges, and I’m excited to make the most of my last year on the team.”

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