An Unexpected Place

Photo by Lauren Lu

Senior Vincent Mai didn’t plan to go to the call-out meeting in the first place. As a sophomore, still new to CHS, he just tagged along with his friends to some club that most of them were going to, hoping to have a good time. He paid it no extra thought.

Three years later, one can consider this extra thought paid in full. Now a TechHOUNDS Information Technology (IT) division group leader and senior, Mai is an important part of the team’s roster, instructing the new members and teaching them tricks of the IT trade. This roster is an integral part of the team it comprises. In fact, there are many such rosters like this, which together make the complete unit known as “Carmel TechHOUNDS.”

The TechHOUNDS participate in events hosted by FIRST, a robotics organization with an acronym that stands for: “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”  Founded in 1992, its first conference was originally confined to the gym of a New Hampshire high school, with 28 teams in total. In 2013, there were over 29,000 teams, with over 314,000 participants and nearly 1,500 conferences around the globe. TechHOUNDS goes to three in total: two regional competitions and the state championships. Their main objective is to complete a single task, the nature of which FIRST comes up with every year. Two years ago, the game, called “Ultimate Ascent,” was to score points by shooting Frisbees through rectangular goals 10 feet above ground. Last year, the game “Aerial Assist” was to throw an exercise ball over a truss and later shoot it through a goal for points. All of this must be completed by the robots, with no human intervention during the first few seconds of a match, leaving the robots to do everything autonomously. Afterwards, the human drivers grab the controllers. Once the robots get on the field — an imposing, 27 feet by 54 feet rectangular enclosure — the gloves are off. They duke it out round after round, metal against metal, to see which team will be crowned champion.

Photo by Lauren Lu

The Spirit of Competition

These competitions, which TechHOUNDS revolves around, can be described as overwhelming affairs. As Mai said, it’s easy to brush it off as “just a bunch of nerds playing with robots,” but according to him, it can be so much more seeing the events. The grand finals of the FIRST Robotics Competition takes place in St. Louis, where the world converges on St. Louis to compete in a veritable Olympics of science and technology. When asked to describe this international championship, Mai paused, searching for fitting words. He started to speak. He paused again.

“I don’t know… Like..,” was what he managed. He eventually found his tongue.

“Seeing all sorts of people all around the world come together for this one program, because you’ve got teams from Mexico, from Israel, from Canada, from Australia, all coming to one place to play this game, to participate in these activities, to participate in the competition,” Mai said. “It’s an amazing experience.”

The competition is difficult and only has become more so as the years have went on. Since the organization’s humble beginnings, the FIRST Robotics Competition has ballooned in size. It is now is a multinational event, with over 70 different countries represented (according to Mai, Canada always puts up the stiffest fight). For 2015, it has undergone further changes, adding two new venues, Renaissance Grand Hotel and Union Station, to its roster. According to FIRST, this is not only to increase the number of teams that can attend, but also to establish the foundations for a sustainable tournament structure that will allow the organization to grow further. It even has expressed interest in hosting the championships in different cities around the country. However, for now, the championships are to stay in St. Louis. The rowdy crowds and the enflamed spirits have always made it unique to Mai.

“You’ve got people cheering, putting on costumes, waving flags around, and all sorts of stuff, just to cheer on their robot, their alliance,” Mai said. “There has been lots of animal costumes, like gorillas. Lots of people dressing up as the Stormtroopers from ‘Star Wars.’”

He later affirmed that they were, indeed, very good Stormtrooper costumes.

“You’ve got people cheering, putting on costumes, waving flags around, and all sorts of stuff, just to cheer on their robot, their alliance.”

Vincent Mai, TechHOUNDS Information Technology (IT) division group leader and senior

A Team Effort

The robot constructing, the costume wearing, the contest winning, all culminates in… what, exactly? A trophy for the winners, a sense of finality, sure, but according to Mai, it brings with it something more intangible. From building, stressing and competing together, a sense of unity is created within the team.

Notice the careful usage of the word “team.” In order to become champion, Mai said that it is imperative that a club works in harmony.

“It’s all a team effort,” Mai said. “All the divisions are equally relevant to the team. So, for example, if we had a robot operations division but without an electrical division we’d have a hunk of metal without any electronics to make it move. If we didn’t have a programming division we wouldn’t have the brains to make the robot move or perform actions, so all divisions are equally important to the team.”

These divisions are an important part of what makes TechHOUNDS, and eventually, the robot it creates, tick. The programming division Mai mentioned focuses primarily on robot programming, commanding the actions of the robot in the ring. The robot operations division focuses on metalwork and fabrication of the robot. The electrical division wires up the robot, the construction focuses on building playing fields for the robot to practice on. All come together to create one final product.

“Working with a large group of people to accomplish a single task is the main appeal for me,” Mai said.

This academic group one of the only teams at CHS that is almost completely student run. According to TechHOUNDS faculty sponsor  Zachary Bonewit, he has found himself taking a hands-off approach to managing the team. He said that he always gives a little input and, ultimately, has the final say on whether something’s viable or not, but the students are responsible for all the organizing, planning and constructing. This is not always easy for many of the mentors, as he also said that their backgrounds in engineering and construction make them want to help out every once in a while. He uses himself as an example.

“Before I taught, I drag raced,” Bonewit said. “A lot of our mentors are engineers by trade. With my background, I like to be hands-on too, but we try to kind of step back and let the kids do most of it.

Photo by Lauren Lu

Present and Future

The strong legacy that Carmel TechHOUNDS has created wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for its membership. Each year, it relies on experienced students to pass down the legacy and the collective knowledge they have accumulated to the new recruits. According to Mai, however, many people who may have interest in TechHOUNDS don’t believe that they too can attain the experience of older members, simply due to the seemingly complicated nature of the material.

“You can’t go up to the average kid and say ‘you know anything about robotics?’ Because the answer will probably be no,” Mai said.

Despite this, he said that this should not be a deterrent for someone who wishes to join the program. When asked whether someone with absolutely no programming or building experience should join TechHOUNDS, he, without pause or hesitation, said “yes.”

“We have a lot of leads and a lot of veteran members that are able to introduce and teach you everything you know for TechHOUNDS to be an enjoyable experience,” he said.

Mai also said that the club was responsible for getting him more interested in engineering. With the constant exposure to robotics, construction, animation and more, it is only natural that any new member will become at least marginally more invested in the subject.

“I was kind of interested in engineering before, but I didn’t really get a feel for it until I joined the team,” Mai said. “Joining TechHOUNDS has definitely (gotten) me more interested in programming than before.”

When asked what drew him to Techhounds the most, however, he didn’t say programming, or building, or any other “technical” subject. Instead, he went back to the team, which he has worked with, taught to and learned from for four years.

“Usually when you’re in class you’re working on small group projects. But being able to work with around 100 kids to accomplish a goal, an end goal, is a good experience, a good feeling, to be able to have your hand involved in something like that.”

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John Chen