Great things are happening with the 44 Engineering Group, producing and supporting a local successful robotics team and proving that talent can exist anywhere. The 44 Engineering Group, based at George Washington Carver High School, supports robotics teams made up of students from Carver, Eisenhower, and Blanson High Schools. Recently, The 44 robotics team participated in the 2023 Houston FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) at the M.O. Campbell Center, Aldine, and did not disappoint as they took home the FIRST Robotics Team Spirit Award. According to Sydney Prier, an Eisenhower senior, “This is a very special award that is given to those who may not have built the greatest performing robot at the competition, but your team has shown a true passion for what they do. They have great character and can articulate their journey and experience. It was a huge honor to win this award.” Roughly 34 robotics teams from across Texas, and one from Mexico, came to compete in the robotics competition. It was beautiful because this is the FIRST time Aldine ISD held a FIRST robotics regional tournament.
FIRST, an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology, is widely recognized as the largest youth-serving nonprofit organization focused on expanding access to STEM education across the Globe. By participating in this international series of robotics events, Aldine ISD students are taught not only valuable technical skills, such as machining parts and programming but they are also exposed to opportunities to develop the critical soft skills needed to have a successful career such as teamwork, problem-solving, collaboration, project management, cross-cultural communication and other key employability skills that are vital to being contributing members of our 21st Century workforce.
Prior to competing at the Houston Aldine robotics competition, The 44 Engineering Group’s FIRST Robotics team competed at the FIRST in Texas San Antonio District FRC Tournament where they ranked number 10th at one point but ultimately finished the tournament ranked 14 out of 45 teams. “This is a great ranking considering how this rookie team of mostly 9th and tenth graders had to step up and fill the shoes/roles of the previous team members” explains Dr. Don Prier, Head Coach of the FIRST Robotics team. He later explains how some “catastrophic errors” were made such as their robot being damaged days before competition by a dropped battery on a gearbox. With the pressure on, Dr. Prier had to decide what course of action his team should take as their robot had no spare gearbox for the upcoming Houston Aldine FRC tournament. After careful contemplation, he decided to use his resources and his students’ skills to build a new and more advanced robot – a robot that was built in three days. “We completed a full robot, full set of bumpers, fully wired electronically, and it was also fully programmed,” Sydney said.
One of the best parts of the robot was that it was conceptualized by Carver High School P-Tech and Carver VEX Robotics students. Under the guidance of Mr. Tim Lewis and Dr. Prier, they have prepared these students to think outside the box but utilize what they have already done and know. These kids are very smart and they can tell when they are competing against robots created and built by professional engineers – and this does not detour these students. Sydney stressed how some of these faux robotics team members don’t know how to fix or solve issues that a robot may have because they did not create it. She made it clear that students played a major role in the creation of their robot. “I’m the programmer and I take pride in that because there were very many sleepless nights making sure our robot could work.” She explained that she did not want to let her team down with an inferior program for such a beautiful robot.
Sydney has a lot of robotics experience as she has been a part of FIRST Robotics since elementary school. Before she knew it, she found herself competing in a high school FIRST FRC state competition with team 7510 of Spring Woods High School and she was only in the seventh grade. She was a middle schooler writing programs for the high school team’s robot. “I have a lot of experience. I have a lot of passion, and a lot of drive to learn as much as I can. So, for me, I wanted the experience…to learn and work with other individuals that are kind of on the same path that I’m on.”
Sydney reflected on a time last year, 2022, when it seemed like every single robot out there could do something their robot couldn’t do. Instead of getting discouraged, the team pulled it together and did what they knew they could do. “There was no point in time where we wanted to give up as a team. We were just going to work that much harder.” Because of this determination, they ended up going to the world championship. “We would just outthink them and beat them,” Dr. Prier said.
When trying to have a successful program such as this one, there are certain challenges that may arise. One of those challenges for them has been funding. Robots are not cheap, and it takes money and resources to make a program like this work. Dr. Prier has not let that hinder his students from being able to compete. “We’ve started developing a network of professionals on the outside that are very interested in helping us find resources so that we can keep this going.” He further discussed how proud he is of his team and what they’ve accomplished. “It’s been an opportunity where we are producing kids that can do it themselves and that’s what they demonstrated at the competition and that’s why they won that award.”
Sydney is currently a senior and will be graduating at the end of May. She has been accepted into Stanford University and is looking forward to this next chapter. Although she will be moving on to the next phase of her life, she wants to leave the younger students prepared and motivated to continue their journey with robotics. “I’m graduating and I want to be able to leave the kids with something to work with, something they can understand. I want to make sure that not only have I been a good team member, but that I’ve also been a successful mentor.” She later proves this after mentoring Mr. Lewis’ VEX teams 44-366B and 44-366C – both teams recently advancing to Technical Student Association VEX State and placing 4th out of 98 teams.