Westerville Wild Warbots endure uncertainty to compete in virtual 2021 FIRST Robotics Competition

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For the seniors on the Westerville Wild Warbots, this was the best robot they’ve built since they’ve been part of the district’s robotics team. And at the start of the school year, they weren’t sure if they’d be able to work with it again. 

Last year’s robotics season was marred with uncertainty since FIRST Robotics Competition canceled all in-person events last spring because of the pandemic. The team’s recruitment efforts were put on hold and their ability to prepare for this year’s competition was in question with students starting the school year remotely.

The Warbots’ coaches — Andrew Testaguzza and Alex Poling — hosted virtual meetings in the fall to stay connected with team members. When they learned that the 2020-21 FIRST Robotics season would be extended so students could use the robots they built last spring, the students jumped at the chance to compete.

“We knew that the students had been so limited by the pandemic and we wanted to give them the opportunity to get together to finish what they started with last year's design and robot,” said Stephanie Labbe, one of the team’s mentors. “It was a little bit of normal life, even with all of our safety protocols.”

The team, which typically has more than a dozen members, lost six seniors who graduated last spring. In previous years, the Warbots met after school four times a week and on Saturdays to build and test their robot. This year, they met only twice a week. 

Despite the challenges, they were able to complete their robot ahead of schedule.

“I’m glad we were able to have some opportunity to do it because this is the best robot we’ve built since I’ve been here,” said Brendan Smucker, a senior at Westerville North High School. “It was good to compete with it. There were a lot of things we were able to do that were improvements from previous years.”

The 2021 FIRST Robotics Competition features at-home challenges where robots must complete at least three of five tasks such as autonomously and remotely driving through predetermined routes as fast as possible or shooting as many balls through various ports in five minutes. Teams had to record videos of their robots completing tasks, which are then submitted for judging. 

The Warbots, which competed in four of the tasks, recorded their videos for the competition this week.

As the team awaits their results, they will start planning for next year and resume their recruiting and training efforts. Labbe said the team, which is volunteer-run, hopes to attend community events such as Fourth Friday and Engineering Fun Days which are offered to elementary students and serves as one of their major fundraisers.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity for anyone who wants to go into any kind of engineering field or programming field,” Westerville North senior Logan Conrad said. “It’s the most hands-on you are going to get in high school.”

High school students of any experience level are invited to join the team and learn how to build, code and operate a robot.

“A common misconception is that you have to be a brilliant AP Physics student to fit in on the team,” Labbe said. “Last year's student coach who graduated in 2020 always joked that he started off not knowing how to hang a shelf and now he can build a robot.” 

Smucker noted that the team’s work isn’t limited to engineering. Those interested in advertising, design and marketing can apply their skills to promote the team.

For Testaguzza, what sets the FIRST Robotics Competition program apart from other activities are the volunteers, mentors and coaches — many of whom work in the engineering field.

“We want to inspire a whole new generation of students to grow up and take up the mantle and become scientists, engineers and technologists,” said Testaguzza, who is a programmer. “It’s a platform to show off everything that technology is.”

Testaguzza and Poling, who also works full-time as a programmer, are products of FIRST Robotics programs, having participated in teams while in high school.

“We hope one day to inspire these guys to do this for a living and coach it,” Poling said. “We were in their shoes 10 to 15 years ago. We volunteer because we know the value of this when we were students.”

High school students interested in joining the Westerville Wild Warbots for the 2021-22 school year or adults interested in volunteering with the team can email wildwarbots3591@gmail.com.