By Todd Travis
Four years ago, if you asked Eli Leser, a senior at Center Grove High School, if he expected to be the captain of the school’s robotics team, he probably would have said “no way!” To imagine leading Red Alert Robotics Team 1741 to finals in the FIRST World Championship in Houston would have been even more surprising. But that’s exactly what happened. Leser joined the team his freshman year and had no prior training in robotics. His mentor, Rachel Miller, remembers Leser as being much quieter when he first joined the team. “Even though he was quieter as a freshman, he has grown so much and stepped up as a team leader to help take our team to the next level,” Miller noted.
But to Leser, being on the team was about much more than just building robots. “I had absolutely no experience, but they taught me how to program, how to do the electronics, how to design and build. That was when I realized it wasn’t just about the robots – it was about the impact we had on those around us, teaching the youth and growing the overall STEAM presence in our community,” he mentioned. STEAM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Leser was eager to talk about the ancillary benefits of robotics before he even got to their accomplishments in the competitions. “We do a lot with outreach. We’re planning a demo at the (Indiana) State Museum, and we’ve already done demos at elementary STEM nights and Clark Pleasant (Branch) Library, who actually modeled part of their building after our program. We have a big impact on our community, and that’s unique for a high school program,” Leser continued.
To help recognize members of the robotics programs across the state, Red Alert Robotics has approached legislators about implementing state requirements for members to wear graduation cords for robotics which would allow them to display their membership during the graduation ceremony. They have also written a grant to start a program called “Growing teams, growing opportunities” which helps start new teams in different schools across Indiana. “It’s really cool to see the evolution of teaching young kids as they move up through our program. We have gotten up to nine ‘FLL’ teams this year,” Leser said. (FLL stands for FIRST LEGO League – a precedent to the ‘RLC’ or Robotics League Competition – that uses all LEGOs to build their robots.) “Robotics has changed my life,” Leser added. His involvement in robotics has inspired him to go for his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology next year.
The road to the Worlds Competition
The competition season begins with two district events. During these events, teams are working to qualify for the state competition. The first district competition was at Columbus, Ind., and the team won the Chairman’s Award – the most prestigious award given to the team that exemplifies a model for other teams to follow. In the second district competition, the team won Engineering Inspiration which is about impact on the community and inspiring future generations of engineers. “Both of those are highly prestigious awards which allowed us to qualify for the state competition,” Leser recalled.
At the state championship, the team won the Chairman’s Award again which qualified them to compete at Worlds. During Worlds Championship in Houston, the team has two qualifying days to lead up to the finals at the end of the competition. The team was chosen for the number two alliance and played all the way up to finals. Even though they didn’t win in finals, they felt proud to have reached such an elite level in the competition. “We got to stick around and watch the round robin for the winners of each division which was called Einstein. It was amazing to be able to watch the pinnacle of what we spent the last four months working on,” Leser said. The team almost won the entire Einstein Round Robin, so they felt they lost to a worthy opponent.
One of the mantras of the robotics league is “gracious professionalism.” Teams are in competition, but they are respectful of one another. This was especially noticeable at the Worlds competition when one team would have an issue with a robot and several other teams would offer to help. These values allow for teams to work hard on their robots while keeping a bigger picture in mind. “One of the biggest challenges for our team was balancing the actual work on the robots with the training of the younger team members. You want to make the best robot possible, but you also want to make sure that the future team members continue on the success of the program,” Leser explained. The good part of this problem is that the team is growing in members. Given the success they had this year, they were able to manage that balance successfully.
Rachel Miller is head operations mentor for the Center Grove Red Alert Robotics team. She started out as a FIRST Robotics student on an FLL team. She continued robotics through high school. She attended Indiana State University and helped start a robotics team in Terre Haute before returning to Center Grove as head operations mentor. “I mostly focus on non-robot-related things, like team branding, working with our sponsors since we’re a nonprofit. We fundraise our entire budget every single year,” Miller explained. “The other big part that I focus on is the outreach. Outreach is an entire team effort; we really focus on having everyone involved with as many aspects of the team as they want. So we encourage all of the students to help out at our different outreach events that Eli mentioned,” she continued.
Because the robotics team is student led, the role of mentors is to guide students as they run the organization. “The students do the programming; they write the business plan and approach the sponsors for the fundraising. They also do the grant writing as well,” Miller said. She compares the team to a sports team as they run like a business and a lot of sports teams. “We call ourselves the varsity sports team of the mind. We meet as much, if not more than a lot of sports teams and we have very high-energy, exhausting competitions just like sports teams. But we’re teaching them so many important skills that they will lean and use outside of high school,” she added.
It was an especially proud moment for Miller to be a part of this team. She remembers being on the team in her junior year of high school and winning the first Chairman’s Award. Since then the team has won a total of nine Chairman’s Awards including this year’s win. As the seniors move on and make room for the upcoming team leaders, they hope to see the success continue as they have worked hard to plant seeds for the future.
You may see a demo from the team at Tinkerfest at the Indiana State Museum on Saturday, May 14 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The event is included with museum admission. For more info visit indianamuseum.org.