Full Stem Ahead: Fishers High School Robotics Team wins top honors at state championship


In a classroom at Fishers High School is a work of engineering art, and a testament to the skills students on the Fishers High School Robotics Team have learned.

It’s also how the team took top honors at the FIRST Indiana Robotics state championship competition in early April.

Junior Ava Ferguson has been on the team for two years. She said she’s always been a hands-on kind of person.

“And I like to challenge my brain with puzzles or science and math activities,” she said. “Once I heard about the robotics team, I kind of just knew that it was a perfect fit for me to do exactly what I want to do. I’m hoping to go to Purdue once I graduate for engineering. And I think it’s just a really great experience to kind of pull me into engineering, and just do more of those hands-on activities.”

Ferguson worked with other team members on the robot’s design and construction. She said the robot was built to grab and release items. The team chose wheels that pull the item in, and then push them back out.

Coach Jeff Fronius said the actual game — the task the robots must accomplish — isn’t announced until January. Up until then, the approximately 40 team members prepared with camps over the summer, then learning and practicing how to build — within reason, because equipment is expensive. Then, when the game was announced, he said they were able to hit the ground running.

This year’s game involved picking up purple inflatable cubes and yellow plastic cones. The robots must pick up the items at one end of the field and set them down at the other end.

“Like most things that you’re getting scores on, it’s really about speed,” Fronius said. “So, we are geared to drive fast, and hopefully score fast.”

Each match is two minutes and 30 seconds long, he said, and for the first 15 seconds, the robot must be pre-programmed. The driver can’t touch anything.

“And so, we have some programmers who literally during spring break stayed here till past midnight. practicing and getting our coding just right,” he said.

Junior Brandon Ogawa was one of the primary fabricators for the robot. He also was the driver — controlling its actions out on the field.

“So, whenever the robot is moving around, that’s me,” he said. “I’d say it’s the best job. Also, probably like the most stressful job, because if something goes wrong, it’s always your fault. Well, it’s not your fault. But everyone’s looks to (the driver).”

Ogawa said he learned a lot through his experiences on the robotics team.

“If we go all the way back to when I joined the team in my freshman year, I knew almost nothing about very basic things, like what’s the difference between a nut and a bolt? What’s an Allen key? What are the different-size wrenches? What is CAD?” he said. “I’ve learned so much since my freshman year.”

Sophomore Ian Stone said he did a lot of work on robot’s wheels, which are very important because the machine needs to move, pivot and spin quickly and accurately.

“They’re really pretty complicated machines. And sometimes you’d have gears that were messed up, you’d have issues with the wheels,” he said. “You’d have issues with the motors that actually control it. So, I was the one that fixed most of those things.”

Stone said he has been part of robotics competitions since junior high.

“But it was different (in the lower grades),” he said. “We didn’t use like any of the tools that we use here. It was all plastic just snapped together. If you needed something to hold together for longer, you would just tape it. Then coming into this, actually using metal, actually having to cut the metal instead of pre-purchasing parts, using drills, using Allen keys, using all the things that we need to actually use to put the robot together. It’s fun to learn.”

Ferguson said she never did anything related to robotics until joining the team her freshman year. She didn’t know about design, about the software programs used to control the robots, or about building a machine. She’s learned all that through the robotics team.

“I’ve also learned a very strong sense of teamwork,” she said. “When I wasn’t doing robotics or anything, in just lower grades in school, I did a lot of sports. I played tennis for a few years. And I was on the tennis team my freshman year and sophomore year. So, there’s a lot of teamwork that comes with sports working with each other, a lot of communication. And I think the teamwork that I learned at robotics is very similar, but also different in that it’s multiple subgroups working together. You’re kind of like individual teams with one big team.”

A big team that built a champion robot.

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Brandon Ogawa and Ian Stone demonstrate how they control the Fishers High School Robotics Team robot, Tiger. (Photo by Adam Seif)

A winning strategy

The Fishers High School Robotics Team didn’t dominate during all the state qualifying competitions, coach Jeff Fronius said. They did well but came in third in the two meets. He said the team realized that the robot’s telescoping arm that grabs objects needed to be longer.

They didn’t have much time to pivot before the state championship.

“In that short period of time — but it included spring break — they did a complete rebuild,” he said.

And that made all the difference.

With their newly built telescoping arm — and a group of wily scouts that watched other teams’ robots to bring data and strategies back to the team — they were able to beat out the competition and qualify for the World Championships in Houston, Texas.

Team member Ava Ferguson said there were 600 teams at the world championships, representing 17 different countries.

“There are so many different cultures there,” she said. “There are a lot of different languages being spoken and there were a lot of flags everywhere. And I really just love how diverse the FIRST community is. There’s people from every everywhere, different races, religions, genders, everything.”

FIRST is an acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” according to the FIRST website. It is an international nonprofit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to promote science, technology, engineering and math education.

The world championship competition was April 19-22 in Houston. Ferguson said they placed 21st out of 77 in their division.