Local high school robotics team looks to defend world title

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MISSISSAUGA — If there were ever such a thing as a minor league team for NASA robotics, it just might be in Mississauga.


Members of the robotics club at Rick Hanson Secondary School celebrated the unveiling of their newest robots, set to compete in this year’s First Robotics Competition. Students, staff, parents and sponsors attended a ceremony at the school for the unveiling last night.


While pictures of the new ‘bots were prohibited so as not to give the competition any advantages, those in attendance, including Ward 6 Councillor Ron Starr, got a chance to see what the students were up to for the upcoming season.


“It’s not something that the students get out of the regular curriculum,” said supervising teacher Corey Lehman. “They get a chance to develop many skills ranging from time management, leadership, and social skills through presentations to sponsors and that kind of things. It’s a really exciting opportunity for them.”


This is the 12th year that students at Rick Hanson have taken part in the NASA sponsored tournament. Last year team No. 1241, better known as “Theory 6‚” won the World Championships in St. Louis, after beating out more than 4,000 teams.


“Last year was an amazing year winning the World Championships,” said Grade 12 student Thomas Chan. “It’s like a sporting event. It’s huge. I think we filled up half of the St. Louis Rams’ stadium last year. I had no idea that so many people were interested in robots.”


Every January NASA simultaneously releases a 3D rendering of that year’s goal to teams across the planet. Students then have six weeks to build their robots and get them ready for competition.


The after-school program at Rick Hanson now boasts more than 90 students from Grades 9-12. Due to the success of the program, this year the school added team No. 1285, a second team that calls themselves “The Big Bang Theory.”


The tournament is broken down into a series of five regional contests. The top 400 teams from each region are then invited to compete in the championships in St. Louis.


Unlike the battle-bots most people are used to seeing on television, where the object is to destroy your opponent’ robot, First’s competition is focused on participants employing teamwork and strategy to achieve a goal.


“It’s much more of a finesse game. You won’t believe it, but the creativity of these kids has inspired ideas for NASA, and then they take those solutions to concept,” said John Hobbins, general manager at First Canada, and one of the founders of program at Rick Hanson.


Last year’s object was to build a robot that could climb stairs and pick-up and throw a Frisbee into a goal. This year, the teams have to devise a robot to throw a large ball over an apparatus that resembles a football upright, as well as perform other simpler tasks. As a result of winning the whole thing last year, Team 1241 is automatically entered in this year’s finals in April.


According to Mark Breadner, executive director of First Canada, many other schools in Mississauga have put together robotics teams as a result of Hanson’s success.


“Rick Hanson Secondary is a huge contributor to the First program,” said Breadner. “They have been involved for a really long time and they are really helpful to other teams. We are really happy with all of their efforts.”


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