The competitive world of high school robotics

by Wendy Univer
Posted 7/20/23

The frenzy of 35,000 people did not emanate from a gymnastics or basketball championship.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The competitive world of high school robotics


The frenzy of 35,000 screaming students, parents, corporate sponsors and college recruiters in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center April did not emanate from a gymnastics or basketball championship…

No, the frenzy erupted around robots. Specifically, the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) annual “Worlds” competition, which draws robotics teams from 59 countries. 

Two Philadelphia teams – Team 1218 from Springfield Chestnut Hill Academy and the RoboLancers from Central High School – had skin in the game. At stake were $85 million in scholarships and attention from potential sponsors and employers like Lockheed, Boeing and the CIA – not to mention the glory of winning.

The SCH team, representing a renowned robotics program that attracts students from as far away as China, came home exultant that their high-performing robot and student-created scouting software had earned them a place at Worlds. With its state-of-the-art equipment and software, Team 1218 had created a powerful competitive edge. Think “Moneyball” applied to robotics, with spreadsheets and colorful graphics generated in real-time.

Less than five miles away, in the cavernous basement of Central High, Philadelphia’s oldest magnet school for academics, the RoboLancers were celebrating their enormous win for an 11-year effort to achieve a very different goal. 

This scrappy team of students and coaches has been working to bring STEM enthusiasm and excitement to one of the nation’s largest and most disadvantaged school districts: Philadelphia. Their game-changing nonprofit, the Philadelphia Robotics Coalition, has jump-started and supports 143 new teams across the city. That culture shift won the RoboLancers the FIRST Impact Award this year and put them in the Hall of Fame.

Both teams embody the FIRST values of “gracious professionalism” and “cooperatition.” And both are doing an impressive job of building enthusiasm – and popularity – for the collaborative, creative endeavor they care so much about. 

A visionary lab in Chestnut Hill

The robotics lab at SCH is spacious and bright, and busy. Almost a quarter of middle and high school students participate in team robotics at SCH, after which up to 20 percent go on to enter engineering programs at elite colleges and universities. Just 13 years after its founding, the program is now so robust it qualifies for the school’s mandatory team sports participation.

“You get what you celebrate,” says Head Coach Peter Randall, quoting a FIRST truism. 

Randall, who spent 10 years in tech before taking the newly-created position of director of technology for SCH in 2000, looks back with a kind of amazement at how far they’ve come. “We had zero kids going into engineering at that time,” he says. 

He was inspired to launch the team by a 2002 meet he saw at Wissahickon High School in Ambler. (Nearby Hatboro Horsham High School is also a noteworthy FIRST competitor, and in Flourtown, the Firebirds of Mount Saint Joseph Academy are the longest-running FIRST all-girls team in the world and very strong competitors.)

SCH’s lab is now equipped with machinery that some manufacturing plants would envy. Computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) routers, lathes and milling machines, plus 3-D printers have all been donated by parents and alumni. Across the hall is Randall’s engineering classroom, creating a seamless connection between coursework and team lab time for students who generally participate in both. 

Just four days after Worlds, Team 1218 is already immersed in upping their game for next season. Well beyond the school day, students wander the lab, school-supplied MacBooks in hand, eager to show a visitor their real-time competitive analysis software. A smiling Randall notes that hands-on, project-based learning is what captivates the students: “They find their passion for learning the hard stuff in what we do.” 

The power of a challenge

At Central High School, physics teacher and RoboLancers coach Michael Johnson agrees. 

“You’ve got a challenge to complete and a tight timeline to do it in. We have 168 students who are in two dozen smaller functional groups, each with a lead. You have to figure out how to pool resources, manage time, manage the project and work together,” he said. “There’s not a lot of talk about that, when people are pushing robotics programs. But in my mind…the learning and growth benefits of a big, multidisciplinary, multi-person project are hard to replicate.”

The RoboLancers’ home base straddles the entire basement of the school’s 1939 building. One end is Johnson’s classroom, and at the opposite end is a commandeered trash room that serves as the practice arena. Midway between the two sits their machine shop, a converted storage closet.

Central doesn’t have nearly the equipment or software available to many other teams. The RoboLancers had to buy and share 20 Windows laptops to run the computer-aided-design (CAD) software they need, for instance, and the team has to pay the school district for Saturday use of their building during the intense, six-week season leading up to Worlds.

Without a CNC router, they can’t cut aluminum – the ideal material for a robot –   and their shapes have to be straight lines and simple angles. But they do have a manual mill and lathe, bandsaw and drill press, and 3-D printers. This year, volunteer coach Isriah Keila found a used laser cutter that’s been a game-changer. 

Despite this, rising Junior and team co-captain Lily Sand asserts, “I come from a privileged neighborhood in a privileged state.” She and her teammates are determined that all Philadelphia youth should be able to choose the kind of future that STEM education offers. And that starts by helping new teams start and grow. 

Sand, who has known that she wanted to be an astronaut since she was five, insists that STEM isn’t just for would-be NASA hopefuls.

“There’s a place for everybody. Lots of kids don’t touch the robots. We write grants and essays, manage social media…I never knew how to 3-D print before I got into robotics, but I also couldn’t have talked to people the way that I can now,” she said.  

And talk she can. It was Sand’s powerful presentation to the judges in Houston that helped the RoboLancers win this year’s Impact Award – the competition’s most prestigious. It was backed by an original video, a lengthy essay, and pages of documentation.

The supportive group of students and mentors who came together to form the Philadelphia Robotics Coalition in 2016 has been recruiting and training coaches, organizing team workshops and events, offering mentoring and holding summer camps. It has now grown from making a handful of microgrants to running a full-fledged nonprofit with an annual budget close to half a million dollars. In 2023, they hired two full-time employees and distributed substantial grants to 128 teams. 

The students touched by the coalition are experiencing the kind of STEM attitude shift that opens doors. And whether they are building world-class robots, or building startup teams in schools that had not previously had such programs, any team that made it to Houston is already winning. 

Or, as Peter Randall puts it: “We’re not using kids to build robots. We’re using robots to build kids.”