Olivia O’Driscoll, 15, from Leahurst College and her friend Ella Hsu, 16, from Regiopolis Notre-Dame High School, co-founded this robotics team in 2018. “I’ve been doing robotics since I was in Grade 3,” says O’Driscoll. “And now seven years later, I still love it and learn something all the time.”
Olivia’s father, Niall O’Driscoll, is one of the few adult mentors guiding the team. His background as an engineer and the fact that he is retired and has time to commit to this is a great asset for the team.“Olivia is tremendously passionate about it and needs no encouragement from me. I’m just happy to help,” says Niall O’Driscoll.
The Machine Mavericks are one of three high school level FIRST robotics teams in Kingston. FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a group that was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Its main principle is to use robotics as a means to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields, but also to inspire them to become leaders and innovators. “It’s like really so much more than just robots,” says Hsu. “It’s crazy the amount of things we learn like presentation and communication skills.”
“I’ve been doing robotics since I was in Grade 3, and now seven years later, I still love it and learn something all the time.”
The Machine Mavericks did really well in their first competition year in 2019 and this year, they had planned to take part in at least two competitions, and possibly more if they did well, until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped them in their tracks. Although the team no longer meets to work on their robot, some members have been using the 3D printer at their workshop to produce face shields for front-line medical workers, so their skills is being put to good use in this difficult time.
The team was nonetheless able to take part in their first competition of 2020 at Durham College in Oshawa from Feb. 29 to March 1, where they finished 11th out of 36 teams. “Compared to the junior robotics teams in primary school, the high school teams competitions are much bigger and very exciting,” says O’Driscoll. “You have like 40 teams at each competition with big robots and the matches are three robots against three robots, so there is a lot more collaboration and competition with other teams,” she says.
After receiving the rules for the year in early January, “every team builds a big 120-pound metal robot from scratch,” says Hsu. “It’s usually like a basketball game where the robots have to place objects around the court,” she says. The competitions are usually held in gyms or arenas, often in colleges or universities. Each match only lasts two minutes and the robots must run autonomously for the first 15 seconds. For the rest of the time, teams of students operate each robot around the field to score as many points as possible.
This type of competition has become so popular that Ontario alone has hundreds of high school robotics teams competing in a number of competitions around the province. There were nine such competitions scheduled this year in Ontario, but only the first few were held before the new social distancing rules prevented any more of them to take place. Some teams are based in schools and mentored by teachers but many of them, like the Machine Mavericks, are community-based and mentored by parents and friends. The building and competition season, from January to April, can be quite busy for the teams.
“I spend like 30 to 40 hours a week on this, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. The time goes really fast,” says O’Driscoll. Regardless of their specific interests, all students find something that keeps them interested in the team. That could be building things, programming, managing a budget, public relations and many other aspects of the efforts of the team. “I really like hands on stuff like that,” Hsu says. “This team helped me understand what my strengths are.” The robot competitions help put a focus on the reasons the team members are learning all those STEM skills. Many students find it difficult to narrow down what they want to pursue after high school.
“It’s like really so much more than just robots."