Lane Tech College Prep junior Joey McCarey first got interested in building things by doing carpentry with his dad as a kid. Legos were a “go-to” Christmas present for him until he was 8.
Now, the 16-year-old is the lead driver for Lane Tech’s robotics team. He’s one of about 20 students heading to Detroit at the end of the month to compete in the world championships organized by FIRST, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit. The competition features hundreds of robotics teams from across the globe.
This will be Lane Tech’s third time at the world championship in the team’s six-year existence, but the first trip for these students. The program — funded out of the school budget, with help from corporate sponsors and other donors — has 80 students; the 20 students on the traveling team put in more time during the build season.
The team, X-Machina, is student-driven, head coach Ben Durham said. Students have six weeks in all to design and assemble the robot; they send their design to a company that makes the parts. Durham and the other coaches, including co-founder Lindsey Smit, advise the students but don’t intervene.
“They put in an enormous amount of time so … it’s like watching your favorite sports team win,” Durham said. “It’s honestly just a thrill to see them get down there and do it and be excited and just have fun. … Just to see the whole thing come from an idea that they created.”
FIRST (“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) was founded in 1989 to get young people interested in science.
After the six-week building season, the final competition-ready version of the robot — weighing over 100 pounds — is bagged and can’t be touched by the high schoolers until the event. The team then practices with a second robot.
X-Machina participated in the Midwestern Regional at the University of Illinois at Chicago this past weekend; it already had qualified for the Detroit event after an earlier competition in Peoria.
“It was a really big shocker because we came into the competition with the robot not looking too good. A lot of people were really down,” McCarey said. “We really didn’t expect to be picked for the playoffs, but all of a sudden, they called our name.”
Senior Brendan Allen, 18, is one of the team’s leaders and a driver coach during matches. As coach, he helps guide one of the two drivers controlling the robot in the field. The goal of the competition is for the robots to pick up cubes and place them on a scale. But teams also can block other robots — a major part of X-Machina’s strategy.
“The robots, they can bash into each other,” Allen said. “So it gets, especially in the eliminations rounds … a lot more intense with the defense.”
The team has mostly fresh faces. Allen said the traveling team has 14 new members this year.
The students describe the group as “tight-knit” as a result of the time they spend practicing together at school, until 7 p.m. each weekday and on Saturdays, too, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We spend a lot of time together here, so really after a certain point it was more like we’re family,” McCarey said. “I don’t think it’s ever been that I haven’t spent more than 10 or 15 hours in a week with some of the people here, so that’s more than I see my own family sometimes.”
The team works in the off-season, too, though practices are less frequent, Durham said.
X-Machina also is about half female — unusual in the male-dominated STEM field, though some female students in the group said they don’t feel any difference because of it.
“Honestly, in my opinion, FIRST does such a good job of incorporating people from all walks of life, it doesn’t feel different or abnormal,” said 14-year-old Elizabeth Ziemer.
Junior Emily Gost, with the program for three years, is happy the team has a strong female presence, given how many boys are at competitions.
“To see . . . girls getting more involved in like the program and seeing that they can do it … I think it’s awesome,” the 17-year-old said.
Allen plans to study engineering at Purdue University next year and said he will see if he continues doing robotics in college. Until then, he’s looking forward to Detroit, even if just to meet some of the other teams.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Allen said.