A story about learning through teaching by Katie Widen

Setting up my high school team’s robot (right) next to that year’s world champion (left). This game involved placing inner tubes on pegs, 2011.

Imagine walking into a basketball stadium or a high school gym — the bleachers are packed with students and adults in groups of the same tee-shirt, and they are cheering, gasping, and intently focused on the spectacle in front of them: robots.

Specifically, these are 5+ feet tall, 125lb machines built by high schoolers, along with their professional mentors, to play a specific game. The game itself changes each year from soccer-like, to basketball-ish, and then maybe disk-golf-esque; but the intensity of the crowd doesn’t. Some students are in the stands keeping track of their competitors’ performance, much like baseball scouts — others are in 10 x 10 ft spaces, deemed “the pits,” where tools lie in wait for the robot to be repaired between matches. Each match plays out like a mini-drama: teams of 3 robots each compete to score the most points in 2 and a half minutes while spectators watch with excitement, anxiety, and cheers. The robot operators have laser focus while the “drive coaches” are coordinating who scores where and when to play defense. When the final score is announced, the stands erupt with hoots and hollers from the winning teams. Then the field is reset, the next round of robots are placed, and the circus begins again.

Boba Bots placing our robot on the field before a match, 2019.

This is the FIRST Robotics Competition, a high school competition that teaches and inspire students around the world. Being on a team is an intense, all-consuming experience that is 100% worth it. I should know, I’ve been involved in competitive robotics as a student, volunteer, and mentor for over 10 years.

Driving the robot in high school — the goal of this game was to score balls in trailers towed by your opponents. I’m on the far right, 2009.

A t Iris, we’re building a detect-and-avoid system for autonomous drone collision avoidance. I write software that supports the efforts of our R&D team — namely everything that isn’t detecting objects. I get to work on projects that integrate with autopilots, monitor the health of our system, and provide metrics that we can use to find improvements. Being an engineer in a startup environment often means chasing the latest technology and finding hard-to-get answers on your own.

I got involved in FIRST robotics when I was 14, where I joined my high school’s team to work on the “business” side of the things like crafting award nominations and team literature — after all, my goal was to be a writer. During a lull in activity, I was given the opportunity to learn to weld under a professional machinist, which put me on the course to being the team’s welder. After learning from and working with my engineering mentors, I was also the captain of mechanical design by the time I graduated. Welding took my chemistry lessons from theory to application, and robot design combined my interests in math, creativity, and problem solving. 

Deciding that engineering was for me, I started university with the intention of majoring in mechanical engineering. During freshman orientation, I signed up for a programming class for fun; three months later I switched majors and now here I am: a writer, though a different kind than I originally intended. Becoming a professional mentor for the local Millbrae High School team, “Boba Bots,” completes the circle of life… or at least the circle of FIRST robotics. 

An upperclassmen (left) teaching me how to improve my welding (right), 2009.

Being involved as a robotics mentor is like being a teacher, a coach, and part of a research team. I enjoy teaching students how to do new things and helping them realize their potential. Along with three other mentors, I meet with our 30 students three times a week, as well as Saturdays. We only have two months to design, build, and test our robot, so every hour counts. At the end of our building period, we’ll attend three-day events where we will compete against 40–60 other teams. The goal is to earn a ticket to the world championship, a four day event with 600 teams that represent the best of the 3800 teams from around the world.

Team photo of Millbrae High School’s robotics team, “Boba Bots,” 2019.

The moments that I really cherish are the moments where I get to learn with the students. It’s incredibly fun to puzzle through a tough problem together. For example, this year we’re using a camera to help the robot center on a goal. In our practice, the robot smoothly lines up but on the field, or the “real world,” it gets jittery and can’t quite find center. While I bring a solid understanding of how control loops work, the students bring a fresh perspective and point out that reflections of light that weren’t present in our shop are confusing the algorithm. Together, we find a solution to our problem: changing the parameters on what is considered a goal and dismissing any data that does not fit our more refined model.

Training the vision tracking on the field, 2019.

Working on the robotics team is analogous to engineering in the real world. In the classroom, the answers can be found in the back of the book, but when designing a new system there aren’t always right answers. Instead, solutions are seeded in theory and discovered experimentally. We don’t always know what works until we try.

Technology and best practices are constantly changing in the professional world and in the world of competitive robotics. In both Iris and mentoring, I’m constantly learning: new autopilots to interface with at work and new motor controllers in robotics; how to plan the safest drone avoidance trajectory and how to maximize the efficiency of the robot’s scoring maneuver; and, of course, diagnosing system failures and creating systems to prevent them from happening again.

By having to distill information for student comprehension, I’ve learned how to communicate more clearly with my coworkers. By creating redundant safety systems at work, I’ve been able to teach the students ways to prevent mid-match failures on the robot. To be competitive with robots, you must adapt and iterate. To be a leader in aviation technology, you must thrive in a dynamic environment. Conveniently, I do both.