Friday, May 6, 2022

Where has my Robotics Team been?

I wish that a quiet blog meant that I have been somewhere sipping a froo-froo drink but of course that is far from the truth.  I think in year three of this pandemic all of us have been taking one step forward and two steps back in everything we do - with anxiety as well.  Nothing that used to be typical and easy and normal to do goes without a hitch.  Especially business at the moment.  One reason I have been quiet was to not attract attention or business when it has been nearly impossible to fulfill orders either from my own travel (two steps back) or materials not being available (three steps back).  

I have used the blog in the past to talk about the other aspects of my existence to alert those that while I am loving embroidery and working hard in that sphere, I am also a mother and doing all of those things that can not be set aside.  It has been lovely that many of you have enjoyed those excursions into the tech part of my life and I appreciate the grace everyone gives me when that is consuming my time.  It is incredibly hard to be both a good mom and a good single businessperson at the same time. The tech part had to go kinda quiet as well because what I often talk about, their robot teams, got really public and I could inadvertently leak out info or pictures that could be used by others.  But it has consumed much of my time for the last five months when combined with a shortened college visit season.

But a three-year run is now complete and the robot field has been put away for the first time since fall before Covid hit and I can speak about what has been going on more freely.  My robot team, this is the younger of the two teams, hasn't had a normal 'run' of a season.  The start of the pandemic coincided with an amazing finish of the regular season becoming the state champion in 2020 and ranked #2 in the world.  The kids were just beezed and raring to go to the Worlds and knew they would be a serious contender.  Two days later - canceled and life was canceled.  It was a hard hit after working for that day since they were 8 yrs old.  We quickly pivoted to zoom and gatherings (once we could) outside to be all about purpose in life and mental health - us parents using it as a tool for some sort of social outlet and normality for the kids.  The robot stayed out and some off-season competitions were held remotely, which gave my son, when forced to be alone, something to do every day - rebuild the robot with all the learning he had over the season.  

Our 2019-2020 Season

The organization pivoted and came up with ways to do the competition remotely for 2021 and thought that they would be able to hold the Worlds again in person in the Summer of 2021 as vaccines were rolling out.  Our kids worked on this new challenge - mostly outside, pivoting to zoom, and then masked with tons of HEPA filters in my house with those whose parents were ok with the risk because their kids needed it so bad.  The season was drawn out from 7 months to 12 months (talk about exhausting) and at the last minute, after our kids had dominated the field and ended #1 for the regular season, canceled the Worlds contest again.  Demoralizing.  We did get to go to one off season event that was held just as Delta was starting up again.  It was hard, new rules had come into effect during covid that allowed robots to hit each other and we weren't prepared for that level and the refs weren't either.  Robots had been built expressly for this event that were "the Brainstormer killers".  We finished the as the finalists and #2 with a totally broken robot, amazingly.  

We had been the surprise top contender in 2019 and now the kids realized that they were target #1 on every teams' radar everywhere.  The quote is "The Brainstormers have broken the game again!"  Slang for figuring out exactly how to optimize the robot for the third year in a row.  Social media had been a factor in years past but now it had exploded with Twitch and YouTube TV shows every week analyzing footage of our robot (often you have to publish a remote match to prove your score).  A top 25-robot show being monetized like e-games talk shows held each week during competition season with sport announcers dissecting the kids moves and mistakes. At the live event, they did that with the show being live and I hated it so much.  Announcers and people around the world talking like the kids were objects on the running comment feed on the side. As a coach I make decisions on who to put into the game based on personal reasons - not on winning the match.    This is a learning experience not a pro sports team.  Our graduating senior was given the spot by the best driver as he said - I have another year to drive.  This is her last time, she should drive.   I hated seeing people who have no idea what is going on criticizing kids.  People taking screen shots and dissecting it jointly on social media platforms, trying to figure out the engineering to copy or design a defensive robot.  Requests for on-internet live facebook interviews (we don't give them).  Because there are many kids participating on other teams in our high school environment, casual questions in the classroom became industrial espionage found on social media chat groups within minutes.  The kids have felt under siege for two years now - they can't even talk about what they are doing in their own classroom else it will show up on Discord that day.  So I had stopped blogging about the kids as a badly chosen word or picture could show up on social media blown up and dissected.

Our 2020-2021 Season

We had four weeks 'off' from that season and then the current season started again.  It looked more normal as everyone who wanted was vaccinated and scrimmages and meetings started in person.  The kids were absolutely determined that this would be the year they would get to play the championship.  Its most of their last year to have something show up on their college applications to show their excellence.  So it was super stressful.

As Christmas approached and the live competition season was going to start, it went to hell a bit.  First they announced that only half the teams that would normally qualify for the world championship would in a reduction of the size due to covid.  And the apportionment meant that other covid effects resulted in regions that were powerhouse ones (like MA) would only get 2 slots vs the 5-7 they normally did.  That was HUGE.  It meant that only the captain of the winning team in a state would move on, not the rest of the partners on the winning aliance.  So you had to win every match to get to be a captain in the first place - and since each match is played as a pair and the partner is assigned randomly - you will pull the teams who just started and have a non-scoring platform on wheels sometimes.  In fact this year, many of the partners pulled not only no points but often penalties because they hadn't ever done this at a competition before and really didn't understand the rules.  It was incredibly stressful.  How to not be a jerk when you might have to ask the partner bot to stay out of the way because their one bad move could destroy your whole season.  

Then omicron hit and the competitions were delayed.  And then the number of qualifiers for each state were slashed to one.  We were registered in two other states and one decided that while we are from the most vaccinated state in the country, our coming would of course bring covid and kicked all out-of-state people out (they don't have enough teams to run a legal competition but they got a pass).  So their kids had a 1 in 13 chance of advancing.  In our state it was 1 in 96.  Our state had the top three teams from the last three years in it.  Someone wasn't going to go.  Two of us teams traveled to the south to try to qualify.  But it was during all the whole country ice storms.  I won't go into the travel chaos, but we have had seven canceled legs since Feb.  I can't tell you how hard it is to be chaperoning kids and have your flight canceled.  Now four times. I have gotten really good at rebooking on an iPhone for 10 people at once.  Cost be dammed - it might be their only chance.  

The new rules for robot hitting are something dreamed up by the games committee to make it more 'exciting'.  But the last 25 years of this competition has been all about gracious professionalism and elegant engineering.  I really hate the new rules.  And so does the crowd.  And the rules haven't been well read overall by the teams as they had a year of remote play, so they haven't engineering for it and the game is designed to have opposing robots in the same exact spot to score.  So they are forced to touch.  We had one invitational where only top teams came and we got our butt kicked at the end of the previous year under the new rules.  So we built for the final Worlds matches and have an over-powered tank.  So lightweight, top heavy robots that bash into us or we touch get thrown.  It isn't against the rules but the crowd gets angry.  So in our last matches in the south, the long time dominate robot got tipped over and the refs were 'they were designed to tip' and touching them wasn't a penalty so at first refused to penalize us.  The crowd continued to scream bloody murder and a repeating gif was all over the internet.  Upon the intervention of some higher-ups, we got yellow carded and the kids had to withdraw from the last match and hope their partners would somehow win and send us to worlds as my son stood there almost crying realizing that the crowd had overruled the rules and might have ended our season.  But the partners did it - OMG - I have never seen my normally very reserved son so effusive.  He ran over and hugged them all in one giant bear hug screaming.

Time to prepare for Worlds.  Fix things, make the robot more error proof and practice.  It had been such a struggle that the kids all took two weeks off to just chill.  Started back up and immediately my son got hit on the soccer field and hit the ground with a concussion.  Dark room and nothing.  No school.  No robots.  We were filled with dread that he wouldn't make it to the championship.  So he was extra good, no TV, no screens, nothing but boredom to let his brain heal.  He got the green light a week before the competition and started cramming work in while trying to start catching up with school. 

The event was in Houston and no way to get our stuff there other than fly it.  The logistics of this event were the worst of all of them I have attended since 2015.  So many issues - down to not being allowed to bring a bottle of water into the event.  They checked us like they were TSA and made you pour it out.  But had a lack of vendors.  So I had to have medical notes faxed to me to get basic water in for my kids - especially the one getting over a concussion.  But yes, it got worse.  To get the robot there, we had to put my husband and son and the robot on a $1500 flight down direct.  Nothing else direct.  I was to fly with the rest of the team later that night.  Canceled.  In the end, I had to have the kids sleep at my house to get back to the airport at 5 am to try to make the start of the matches, we would miss the judging and give up on all the judged awards.  Back down in Houston, two of the girls had flown with mom on a cheeper flight two days ahead.  They were working with my son to get the robot inspected, etc.  And he started throwing up.  Bug? Food Poisoning?  My husband was not Dr. Dad.  I wasn't there to realize that he had a migraine start on the plane that morning.  And it wasn't his normal migraine presentation of throbbing headache.  It went straight to what is called an "abdominal migraine" (four doctors later).   I had texting capability through the plane and played doctor and coach from the air to my husband and three kids as Andy couldn't get out of bed and the girls were going to handle the normally 8-kid judging.  Of course all the required documents and presentation were with me.  Hotel printing, etc. going on.  Me texting the girls 'you got this'.  

Andy threw up and got to the venue in time to walk into the judging and do the field inspection with our robot.  We landed and came in like the calvary with all the rest of the robot parts in four pieces of luggage.   Just in time to drive the first match and go back to the hotel.  Andy was a mess.  He was also the only driver 1 type of the two driver pair.  With omicron and rolling covid through the group we just hadn't had the time to train up a second to worlds level and he just has specialist knowledge that the pandemic wouldn't allow us to duplicate.  So he had to be there.  By the third day he still wasn't eating and we were winning.  All the parents who were supposed to be with us (and were doctors) had canceled flights so he was in bad shape by the time they arrived to help me out.  He was living on tums and electrolytes.   We upgraded to pepsid and he could barely make it through the day eating some toast and then giving it up the next morning.  There was no way to get away from the event.  

The kids were awesome.  They knew they could get through anything together and pulled together.  Our booth was just mobbed with fan boys, people who wanted autographs on their shirts, and coaches that just wanted to ogle the engineering.  The kids formed a protective wall for Andy so he could put his head down and try to close his eyes between matches.  But getting away was impossible.  The event is like a NBA game married with a rock concert and there are CDC/TSA level conditions on it.  7:30am-6pm all day.  Then dinner and quick back to the hotel to do 2 hours of practice with other top teams as you are all doing a 'dating dance' in the night to figure out possible partnerships for when the captains have to pick. There is so much strategy.  Five days of this grueling schedule.  From the coach logistics side, you have to spend a month ahead getting the food all pre-positioned.  Ordered, private rooms reserved at restaurants as 30,000 people are there in groups of 20-50.  No one can walk in off the street for food in a city hosting this event.  Now the venue wouldn't let food in, so leading your kids to meet the vendor who is trying to drop off on the side of the street the catering with tons of other trucks and finding some sidewalk to eat on.  I would be out side the hotel each morning for a very early delivery of hand-held breakfast and take it to each hotel room so they could walk out to the venue while eating.

Our next calvary member arrived on Thursday.  He is our best Driver 2 and he had a tryout scheduled with an academy in Spain (feeder system for pro soccer) so he flew straight from Spain and I collected him from his dad at the hotel - no time to put stuff down - and took him right to the venue as the kids were hitting a low and needed him to come in and inject enthusiasm.  He did the trick as a wilted Andy was in the match queue line and went to hit a high score.  I was so thankful to Cruz for that valiant effort to get to the competition.  He drove the next day and all the eliminations. 

We were now sure it was a migraine as Friday morning, it was throbbing and we sent the team to the venue while I sat in Andy's room with car keys to get him there direct.  Pumped him full of tylenol on doctors orders.  It was dire.  He asked me if we withdrew from the last three matches if anyone would pick us for an alliance or if their run was done.  I just didn't know.  Thank god the tylenol took the edge off enough for him to get up.

We climbed to #3 captain out of the 160 teams and ended up on the #1 alliance as the first pick of the alliance selection.  The last day was the eliminations.  We were in the hardest division and creamed everyone.  Andy pretty much tossed between matches.  It was brutal but they were all hugging each other and keeping each other in as best spirits as they could - everyone was taking turns shaking the big bottle of his Canada Dry to get the bubbles out so he could drink.  Our one senior who graduated last year made it from Austin in her gear to be there the last day - it was a huge shot in the arm again.  The girls had bought her a sash that she wore "Retired and Fabulous".  They would go out 'together' whatever happened.

They lost the final match and became the World Champion Finalists on a mistake of their own.  It was bittersweet - the community feels bad for them as it was obvious they could have won it.  The other side played their heart out and deserved it and never made a mistake.  No one knew how much our team had gotten through during that week.  Us parents were prouder than we have ever been.  No biting each others heads off, nothing other than clinging to each other and propping each other up and happiness.  It's like the lessons of the last few years had taken root.  They were there - they proved that they belonged at the top.  Nothing was more important than their friendship and the deep, deep, deep respect of their peers.

An amazing number of kids came over to jersey swap or ask our team to sign their shirts

We are on week two now of recovery.  He lost 10 lbs.  Of course our flights were canceled on the way home.  Of course the only way home was to fly to New York and drive.  And that one was delayed over and over as well.  The kids reacted by playing their phones and singing "If you can make it to New York You can make it Anywhere!!!!" in the second hotel van of the day.  

They are Champions in my book.  We put the field away, Andy is slowly recovering on meds (it will take a month the doctors say), now we have special migraine meds for next year, they are making up homework and tests.  He got his AP tests delayed.  And of course - in the way our school does things (no celebration for achievement as it stresses out the kids who haven't achieved) - no one but the geeks on this rarified robot social media knows what happened.  The teachers think the kids just had some travel problems getting home from some beach vacation.  Not that these kids showed mind-blowing grit to become the second best robotic team in the world.  Our third partner in the alliance - their whole private school watched live in the auditorium and put up huge posters of them for their arrival home.  Our local paper didn't find it interesting enough.  Everyone achieves in this town, so it is boring.

Our 2021-2022 Season

If you have Disney+, last month a documentary was put up called "More than Robots" which documented the season that was cut short by Covid.  At first when I heard that it was that season which was filmed, I screwed up my nose.  It is all capped by Worlds which is this higher than high octane drama - and worlds was canceled.  So I thought it would be a bad film.  But watch it.  It follows the larger size robot division and shows clips from the year we won the Championship in Detroit (yes in the clips we are there).  But the film makers took the part where covid canceled the season and showed the kids as they dealt with it.  It captures exactly why mentors like me will give up so much of our time, our professional lives, etc. to continue to take a set of kids through the process.  You think it is all about programming and mechanical systems.  It isn't.  It is about forming young adults who can solve problems, keep life in perspective and at a young age think about how their actions can affect others and maybe they can do something good in the world.  It is about resilience.  About building good citizens.  The kids who were in the program didn't take the covid period of lockdown laying down.  They got up and did something about it.  Organically, because that was what they have been taught to do - not to wait until the adults around them come up with solutions.  No textbook.  No manual.  They figure it out and take action.  I am so proud of not only the hundreds of kids my team mentored through this, the dozens of face shields parts they made with other teams for hospitals, but their own resilience to push off the setbacks and march forward to excellence - believing that if they did they might succeed.  That's why I take chunks of time off and why the business has been open and closed in a weird way for a few years.  


  1. Holy MOLEY. What an ordeal. You are all amazing, and I love that you write these things up for us.


  2. Congratulations to the team for being the amazing kids they are! Wow what an Odyssey, and an Iliad worthy of Homer. Cancelled can be dealt with but jezus wept, trust texas to make a difficult situation intolerable! I'm just glad your kiddo came out alright, poor boy-o! And you my girl are a champion! I have followed your robot kids since the first boy was in them and you do good work.

  3. I got wore out just reading all that went on with the team. No wonder you haven't been posting much in the last year. At first thought, I'm surprised there's so much spying, intrigue, and drama going on, but I guess with college applications and future careers on the line, it makes sense. Not to mention parents that put ego & winning before all else. I hope Andy is getting over the migraine stuff. No food/water allowed to bring in, but yet no vendors?!?!? WTH????? Bummer the team didn't take 1st, no shade will be cast from me though. I'm surprised by the contact being allowed (encouraged?), it makes me wonder if someone's trying to make it more like battle bots?

    Speaking of which - have any of your team members gone on to be on a Battle Bots team? I know I've seen teams from MIT on the show, wondering if any of the members have been under your guidance.

  4. What a story! It takes a lot of guts and personal morale to get through this kind of project in normal times, let alone Covid era. I hope your son continues to recover and all the kids are proud of their achievements- that’s really quite something.