The road to Worlds

After attending the World Championship in Detroit, Michigan, FIRST Robotics Competition team 167 discusses how the team has achieved their most successful season in team history.

Thunderous applause shakes the room. Smells of popcorn and hot dogs fill the air as viewers fight to get the best seats. An array of LED embellished signs and mascots wave across the crowd, encouraging them to grow even louder. As the announcer taps the microphone, the crowd begins to die down, eagerly anticipating what’s to come.

“THREE. TWO. ONE. POWERRRR UP!” the announcer shouts.

Within seconds, the players are off and the game begins. But as the audience claps and cheers, there are no bats or rackets swinging, no balls being thrown in the air or even any people on the field. This game isn’t a traditional sports event. It’s a robotics competition.

This particular event is part of First Robotics Competition, or FRC: a sub-level of the organization FIRST robotics. The Iowa City Robotics FRC team, also known as Children of the Corn or team 167, is made up of students from West, City and Liberty High Schools. These students perform a variety of activities, ranging from driving the robot to programming to making graphic design illustrations.

Team captain Yajatra Kulkarni ’18 has participated in FIRST robotics since he was 11 years old, and has dedicated hundreds of hours towards robotics since.

Using crazy ideas and turning them into a real machine is an amazing thing that I continue to enjoy and is the biggest reason for why I do robotics.”

— Yajatra Kulkarni '18

“My role is to ensure the success of this team with the help of other leadership students and mentors,” Kulkarni said. “I really enjoy working with other students to strategize and plan a path of success for our team … Using crazy ideas and turning them into a real machine is an amazing thing that I continue to enjoy and is the biggest reason for why I do robotics.”

These “crazy ideas” led to a creation that would led the team to qualify for the FIRST World Championship in Detroit, Michigan — an achievement team 167 had not reached since 2011.

However, this formidable accomplishment did not come easily. Creating the robot alone was a daunting task for the team, as the official build season had a six week time limit. This season began in January and ended mid-February. During this time, students designed, built and programmed the robot. They also fundraised and did graphic design and media work. This was done with the help of adult mentors, ranging from ICCSD teachers to Rockwell Collins employees.

“This year had been one of my favorite groups to work with,” said City High teacher and drive coach Jacob Schares. “Everyone was willing to go through the process of revising and redoing designs and the effort that went into all aspects of the team this year was at a level that I haven’t seen before. This group really had a team first mentality and … put a great deal of effort into whatever role they had.”

Following the build season, the team prepared for two regional competitions: the Iowa Regional in Cedar Falls, Iowa and the Seven Rivers Regional in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

At the Iowa Regional, the Children of the Corn placed fifth in qualification matches — the best they had performed in team history.

“The Iowa Regional went fairly well,” said drive team member Chirag Jain ’18. “The beginning was fairly rough as we were still getting accustomed to driving it and making effective strategies …. [We] made it to quarterfinals, which was decent, but we were aiming for more.”

Following this, the team went on to set a new high at the Seven Rivers regional, where they finished qualification matches ranked third — the highest the team has ever reached. But this excitement was short-lived, as the teams they had allied with fell apart during elimination matches and were defeated.

The thought of never being able to see the World’s Championship firsthand was really infuriating.”

— Yajatra Kulkarni '18

“I was devastated,” Kulkarni said. “I felt really angry at myself, and tossed the controller onto the driver station. I broke into tears when we got back, and unwillingly accepted that more than 300 hours of work were gone down the drain, and my robotics career had ended. The thought of never being able to see the World’s Championship firsthand was really infuriating.”

After this disappointing loss at Seven Rivers, the team thought their journey was over. But as they began to pack up and plan for off-season activities, unexpected news came their way: they were chosen from a waitlist to attend the Detroit World Championship.

“It took me a while to process it, to be honest,” Kulkarni laughed. “We [had] a robotics meeting to clean up our tools and pack up since the season was over. I came and found the mentor smiling at me … and slowly concluded that we had qualified to go to Worlds. The season wasn’t over, we wouldn’t have to pack up and I would get to drive the robot one last time at the robotics event that I had dreamt of for the past six years.”

At the World Championship, which took place from April 25 to April 28, the team competed in the Curie division where they were ranked 51 out of 67 teams. While this was not as high as the Children of the Corn would have liked, having the opportunity to participate in a world championship still remains one of their favorite robotics experiences thus far.

“It was everything I had expected and more,” Kulkarni said. “Walking in and realizing that the place was somehow packed with more than 400 teams is still something I have a hard time grasping. The drowsiness from the eight-hour car ride was gone in an instant, and I was eager to get on the field to show the world what our robot could do – literally. Experiencing the World Championships in Detroit with this team was all I could have asked for as my robotics career came to an end. These seven years have made me realize that I am, in fact, a true nerd.”

While the team’s official season is over, the hard work, dedication and camaraderie that team members put in is something that resonated with mentors and students alike.

“There are some members on this team that poured their heart and soul into this robot and into this program,” said mentor Mike Pownell. “You see that in how well we did this year. Also the team is very supportive of each other and their positive attitude is contagious. They earned their invitation to the World Robotics Competition this year.”

“The team dynamic is wonderful,” Jain said. “[It’s] filled with hardworking people that stay up late and think about the robot in all their free time while working together in a wonderful environment.”

It’s about learning to work with a bunch of different people with different skills and developing a product that works.”

— Caleb Neel '18

This idea of camaraderie being the backbone of the team was echoed by scouting leader Caleb Neel ’18.

“This team isn’t just about building a robot,” Neel said. “It’s about learning to work with a bunch of different people with different skills and developing a product that works.”

Looking forward, the team’s future is uncertain. They will face the loss of several vital members as seniors graduate. However, underclassmen like future driver Erin Netolicky ’20 are up for the challenge of continuing and building off of this season’s success. She hopes that in the coming years, more students will join and become part of what the team refers to as their “dysfunctional family.”

“There is something for everyone,” Netolicky said. “Do you build? We’ve got you. Do you want to learn to build? Also have that. Design? Perfect, we need buttons and promotions. Everyone can learn something and adds something new to the conversation.”

While many of the leaders of the team will graduate and move on, Pownell remains hopeful for the future of the team.

They are our future, and the future is bright.”

— Mike Pownell

“We’ve always had excellent student leaders in this community,” Pownell said. “I thought last year we had some amazing seniors and really had doubts heading into this year. Boy, was I wrong. I’m constantly amazed at our local youth. The teachers, parents and coaches should be proud of how these students are raised. They are our future, and the future is bright.”