NORTH BAY––When the Wikwemikong High School robotics team pulled into Nipissing University’s Robert J. Surtees Student Athletics Centre in North Bay on Wednesday, March 25 pulling the small trailer containing their robot and tools for the FirstRobotics Regional Competition, they found themselves immediately overawed when another team pulled in behind them.
“They had two big full-sized buses with their team,” said Wikwemikong High School teacher and robotics team mentor, Chris Mara.
“They have team shirts and matching sweaters. We are going home,” quipped Wikwemikong robotics team member Tim Pitawanakwat.
The Wikwemikong robotics team consisted of Wikwemikong High School students Tim Pitawanakwat, Kaitlynn Recollet, Reynold Assiniwe, Shaelynn Recollet and Annie Wemigwans and despite the initial shock of the resources they were up against, the team remained undaunted. Despite facing well-established and funded opposition, they knew they were from the little school that could––and they did! Finishing in the top third of all of their competitions, winning their first round and taking home two out of three rookie trophies despite the challenges facing them from many well established teams. The team finished 13 overall out of 36 teams competing from across the province.
“Our team did really, really well,” beamed Mr. Mara of the five-person Wikwemikong robotics team. Three of the members arrived with the robot as an advance group for the unloading and preliminary work while two other students joined the team for setup on the second day.
“I am excited that our students have had the opportunity to put into practice the math and science skills they have learned in our school board,” said Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier. “One of the things I have learned from this weekend is that they can compete with any school board in the province.” Chief Peltier noted that the students have also learned in a very concrete way that they have skills that can be transferred to any post-secondary school in the world.
“The example this team has set has certainly raised the bar for their peers,” he said. “They have been able to garner awards and recognition from the event organizers.” This inaugural team’s success, he noted, is something that future teams can build upon and develop the program further.
The Wikwemikong robot was designed to be both robust and simple. “Our robot was designed to do one thing, but to do that one thing very, very well,” confided Mr. Mara. This was a good proven strategy for a rookie team, as the competitors were grouped into alliances. The Wikwemikong team was chosen as one of the alliance leaders.
The FirstRobotics competition is very collegial, which the Wikwemikong team discovered to their delight. “This competition is all about developing and encouraging student engineers,” said Mr. Mara, who noted that teams gain points for assisting other teams.
Many of the experienced teams have large corporate sponsors and incredible resources to draw from, noted Mr. Mara. “One team even had their own metal lathe set up in their pit,” he said. “Another team had a dedicated machine shop at their school for robotics.”
With deep pocketed sponsors, some teams would only have to draw a part they needed in AutoCad, email the drawing to their sponsor, and the part would arrive 24 hours later, laser cut, machined and ready for action.
“We have one tote full of tools,” noted Mr. Mara.
But that aforementioned collegial atmosphere fostered at the competition went a long way to fill in any gaps in the tool rack. “If a team needed a tool or were lacking a part, there was a form to fill out and an announcement would be made over the PA system,” he said. “All the teams would rummage through their toolkits and someone would supply the needed materials.” Since most of the teams sported $2,000 toolboxes and even large screen televisions, that was a very good thing.
From the very beginning the Wikwemikong teams experienced a welcoming atmosphere. “When you first arrive your robot is placed in a gymnasium, sealed for inspection,” noted the teacher. “Each team has a pit, set up something like a NASCAR race pit, with your tools and parts.” When the Wikwemikong team arrived at their “pit” they found that one of the well-funded larger teams had gone out and purchased shelving and benches, which they then had set up for the arriving rookie team.” In fact, another team had gone so far as to source a bank of 12-volt batteries and placed them in the pit on charge, ready for the new team’s use.
“All the teams pull together,” said Mr. Mara. “The idea is to foster the kind of cooperation that engineers need when they are working on projects. Since the ultimate goal is to develop engineers, the point is not to privately hoard your great idea but to share.”
There was good community support from across the Island for the team. “We had good access to the Assiginack recycling program, and Delmer Fields’ workshop, which really helped out,” said Mr. Mara.
After the first day of the competition, the Wikwemikong team found itself ranked among the elite group of eight. “As captains, we wound up choosing a team for the quarter finals, semi-finals and finals.”
The Wikwemikong team also stood out as unusual in that there were a larger percentage of females on the team.
“At one point the three students gathered around working on the robot were our female team members,” noted Mr. Mara. “There were other female members on other teams, but they were always surrounded by a large contingent of male students.” On the Wikwemikong team, the Anishinaabekwe played a central role.
The team proved beyond any doubt that First Nations students from a remote and rural school can reach the highest levels of success in the math and sciences. “First Nations students tend to be underrepresented in the maths and sciences,” noted Mr. Mara. “These results show that we can stand shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe with anyone across Ontario and will help other students to recognize the possibilities that are out there for them.”
With this first competition behind them, the Wikwemikong robotics team also now has the results they can show potential corporate sponsors in order to attract their support. From here on, the sky truly is the limit.
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