CSM Robotics Competitions Go Around the World and Back


Five Years, Thousands of Students, Hundreds of Robots and One Southern Maryland World Championship Team

When College of Southern Maryland Chair of Technical Studies Department Judy Thomason applied for a National Science Foundation Grant to help CSM develop community interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in 2006, she had no idea how far her idea would go—but she had high hopes. It turned out that Thomason’s early efforts in Southern Maryland have spread, not only across the state, but also across the Atlantic, have sent teams to world championships and have brought championship trophies back home to Southern Maryland.

             Although she is now retired from CSM, Thomason is still passionate about robotics and volunteers at the college’s competitions. “This program has exceeded my expectations,” Thomason said, adding that the success of the program has been the outpouring of volunteers from not only CSM but businesses and the community.

In the five years that CSM has hosted robotics competitions, thousands of students and hundreds of robots have zoomed around the Physical Education (PE) Building’s gym floor, while hundreds of CSM staff and student volunteers along with dozens of corporate sponsors, community organizations and elected officials have provided support.

And, CSM’s competitions have become a model for other regions. In the December 2010 FTC competition, a team from Aviano, Italy, comprised of U.S. Department of Defense dependents whose parents are stationed abroad, visited to compete and to learn how to bring a competition such as this to Europe for American students to qualify for World Championships.

For people who have not been following the robotics craze, there are two nationally sanctioned robotics competitions: FIRST Technology Championship and VEX. Both use specialized robotics kits with some parts that can be shared between platforms. The competitions are held on a standard playing field with components added each year specific to the competition. For instance, the game “Hot Shot” played at CSM’s 2009 Maryland FIRST Championship qualifier, required robots to open a chute holding whiffle-ball sized balls, to gather and store balls on the robot itself and to launch the balls into containers inside and outside the field of play. To do this, the robots had to be designed with moving parts, arms that might scoop up balls or work as pincers. The robots need to turn in every direction, move forward and in reverse, drive up a ramp and sometimes balance on a teetering board.

“If you’ve watched video of the Mars rover or a bomb disposing-robot then you get the idea of the types of maneuvers these machines have to perform, often from remote locations where the driver is watching from a computer monitor,” said CSM Business and Technology Division Chair Robert Gates, who is heading the planning for the college’s robotics competitions.

 “This is not like opening a remote-controlled toy on Christmas morning adding a few batteries and off you go,” said Gates. “Months before a competition, teams receive a box of parts including a motor. They then have to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense for the game they will be playing. They have to attach wires to each mechanized piece that will relay instructions from an onboard computer that is getting signals from the student driver’s hand-held controller.”

Each team has to have at least one programmer who will write the code that makes the robot come alive.

The robotics competitions are designed by practicing engineers who know that similar end results can be achieved from divergent courses, so teams are judged not only by final score, but also for out-of-the box thinking, problem solving and teamwork.

Teamwork, along with robot design and programming are other factors in the competition. Each team is required to join an alliance with two other teams. The alliance members rotate, as only two can be on the playing field at a time. The three-team alliance competes against another three-team alliance. During the championship rounds the top teams choose their alliance partners.

“In the working world of scientists and engineers, working collaboratively is essential,” said Gates. “Often project teams are made up of individuals that are not only from various disciplines such as chemists, mechanical engineers, physicists and computer programmers, but individuals from different cultures and academic backgrounds. The lessons these students are learning about working together will serve them throughout their careers.” 

CSM has hosted the Maryland FTC qualifier since 2008. For two of those years, the Spangler family’s homeschool team of “Under the Son” along with teams from Western Maryland have represented the state in national competition. In April 2010, the Spanglers returned from Atlanta with a trophy for competing on the winning World Championship team. They hope for a repeat as they head to the World Championships in St. Louis in late April.

FTC competition has been fierce among school and community teams outside of Southern Maryland that have been designing and programming robots for years. To build skill and confidence among local teams before competing against robotics competition veterans, CSM started the Southern Maryland Robotics competition using VEX equipment. Open to elementary, middle and high school teams, the program tried to build awareness and excitement for robotics competitions among Southern Maryland school faculty, administrators and students.

It worked.

In the 2010 Southern Maryland Robotics Competition, the entrants doubled from the previous year with 130 teams from 70 schools wanting to compete. In the 2010 Maryland FIRST competition, teams needed to compete in a qualifier to shave the competition to a manageable 55 teams. This year the high school competition and the elementary and middle school competition will be held on two separate days.

Kicking off the 2nd annual National Robotics Week on April 9, the CSM Southern Maryland Robotics Competition, with major sponsor BAE Systems, and sponsors TIME Center, PNC Bank, the Patuxent Partnership, Charles County Technology Council, CSM Foundation, SAIC and Energetics Technology Center, will bring high school teams to the college’s Physical Education (PE) Center for the game “Round Up.” On May 7, elementary and middle school teams from Charles and St. Mary’s schools will compete, with Calvert schools already competing on April 2.

From the first competition in 2006 with just two high school teams, CSM’s robotics championships have provided exposure to engineering, computer programming and teamwork skills to thousands of students not only in Southern Maryland, but across the state and the Atlantic Ocean.