Topcon sponsored team excels at the XL
The Hartford (Connecticut) XL Center, accustomed to presenting outstanding performances in the form of the University of Connecticut's men’s and women’s basketball teams, major musical acts like Bruce Springsteen and Maroon 5 and, in the past, the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, saw excellence of a different sort from April 14th through 16th. That weekend, some of the region’s brightest, most innovative, most enthusiastic minds literally took the floor as the XL played host to the New England District Championship of FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and its annual Robotics Competition. One Topcon-sponsored team, Andromeda One, placed 19th out of 200 teams and will be heading to the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis in late April.
List of FIRSTs
Founded more than 25 years ago by Dean Kamen, inventor of, among scores of other things, the world’s first drug infusion pump and the Segway, FIRST seeks to inspire an appreciation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in young people. It does so by challenging teams of students to design, build, program and operate a robot which can be then entered into local and regional competitions. However FIRST is about a whole lot more than just robots, according to Steve Plamondon, vice president of sales for the Stow, Massachusetts-based Topcon Solutions Store by day, Andromeda One mentor in his off-time.
“The real goal of FIRST is to instill an appreciation for science and technology, but it goes a lot further than that,” he said. “Along the way, the students learn the value of teamwork, they learn to take direction from the team’s many mentors, they develop pride and camaraderie, they make new friendships or strengthen existing ones. To see these kids work together to tackle a problem is just an amazing, fulfilling experience.”
The challenges of running a FIRST team are surprisingly daunting and, to help address them, Andromeda One is divided into groups, each with its own responsibilities and corresponding area of expertise.
“We have one group that handles finances and they have a CPA mentor who guides them and teaches them how to handle all the financing matters for the team,” said Plamondon. “We have another group in charge of fund-raising, so that we can get the sponsorships and funds needed to even attend these events. We have two groups in charge of software: one that handles the actual programming, the other responsible for learning CAD so that we can mock up the robot prior to actually building it.”
Other groups include one in charge of team spirit who works hard to promote Andromeda One both internally and to the outside world; an electrical group to handle the intricate wiring for the robot; and a mechanical group which is responsible for the actual build and maintenance.
“One last group, but certainly not the least in importance,” said Plamondon, “is the strategy group which, in addition to scouting the performance of other teams at events, looks at the upcoming game and determines how to best play it from an offensive and defensive perspective. So we are not just a team of engineers, we have finance people, electricians, communications people, programmers and so on, each honing their particular skill. It is essentially like these students are running their own small company — how invaluable an experience is that?”
“We need to help kids get excited about
math and science and later on, hopefully,
the civil engineering and construction
side of those disciplines."
The Topcon connection
Topcon’s support of the Andromeda One team is the result of Steve Plamondon approaching Mark Contino, the company’s vice president of global marketing, and Contino immediately seeing what a positive move it could be for all involved.
“Obviously, we knew the kids could benefit financially by having us as a sponsor; Steve explained the costs involved in supporting a FIRST team,” said Contino. “However, in the last five years or so, we have been making a concerted effort to reach out to students through efforts like these. We need to help kids get excited about math and science and later on, hopefully, the civil engineering and construction side of those disciplines. There’s no denying that both the construction/survey industries and we, as a company, are going to depend on their involvement.”
He added that, from Topcon’s perspective, that dependence stems from an ongoing need to have skilled, qualified personnel to sell its products, to train others in the operation of those products, to have people to maintain them, and so on.
“As a manufacturer, it’s one thing for us to come up with the latest component or system to save time, increase efficiency, and so on,” he said. “But will the customer be able to use it or be able to hire the right people to use it? That’s why we’ve opted to dedicate a lot more time, effort, and resources to such educational opportunities; these are the kids that we are counting on meet those needs in years to come. So when Steve contacted me, it just seemed timely and the right thing to do.”
Have fun stormin’ the castle
To witness a FIRST Robotics Competition is to step into a mixture of high school sporting event (complete with cheers and mascots); NASCAR race; and scaled-down demolition derby — with a smattering of Dungeons & Dragons-like costuming thrown in for effect. In the event, two alliances, consisting of three teams each, compete on an elaborate course. This year’s design featured a Medieval theme in which the teams had to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with memory-foam “boulders” and capture that tower. As mentioned, Andromeda One did exceptionally well, placing 19th out of 200 teams from throughout New England. Though only in its third year with FIRST, they are already two-time winners of the coveted Chairman’s Award, which honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the goals and purpose of FIRST.
“The Chairman’s Award is the highest honor presented at these events,” said Plamondon. “To be recognized like that, despite our team’s relative newness, says a great deal about how well these kids have come together as a team. To be headed to St. Louis for the championships again is a great accomplishment and we are grateful for the support of our sponsors — like Topcon — who help make that happen.”