When Robots Fail: A Minnesota School Learns Engineering’s Most Important Lesson




Early last year, a group of high school students wheeled a robot into a packed arena in Duluth, Minnesota. They were bringing to competition a device they had spent months designing and engineering. What they didn’t know yet was that by the end of the first round, their machine would be in pieces all over the floor.

The TopperBots are a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team (officially team 4230) from Marshall School in Duluth. FRC is an international high school robotics competition meant to give student’s real-world engineering experiences—and unfortunately in 2014, that would include both engineering success and failure for the team from Minnesota.

Already in their third year of competition, the TopperBots had a history of choosing wood for their construction efforts. So much so, that in 2013 the team name was Marmota monax—Latin for woodchuck.

“We got this nickname because most of our robot body back then was made of various wooden pieces,” says Paul Schonfeld, 2015 head coach. And indeed, they hung on to their love of wood well into 2014. If you look at the throwing arm they used in that first round of competition back in March 2014, you can see it’s constructed from plywood.

And that’s what failed that day.

“Our robot self destructed,” says Schonfeld. Not only did the TopperBots entry fail to toss the ball anywhere useful at the end of the first round of competition, it began spewing chunks of wood into the air right in the middle of the event.

There was no gluing it back together, and with only 45-minutes until their next round of competition, the student team had to come up with some kind of solution or drop out of the game. They imagined a metallic arm would work better—but they didn’t have the materials or the tools to make one.

That’s when the Duluth team learned a key lesson in engineering: Science isn’t really a competition. It’s a collaboration. The team in the staging area next door, the Sir Lancer Bots from La Crescent, MN, stepped in with everything the Duluth team needed to make the next round.

“They gave us the aluminum, they gave us a vice for bending it, and we all worked together and had the robot ready in time,” says Schonfeld.

You can see the drama in the video below. In the first round, the TopperBots entry is in blue and at around the 30-second mark you can see pieces flying. By round 2, the TopperBot machine is now cloaked in red and the aluminum throwing arm works as designed, sending the ball into the goal.

Did the failure at the competition drive students away from Marshall School’s FIRST program? Not at all. Schonfeld says that the team learned from the experience and made a decision to stop being a “beginner’s team” in 2015.

With the help of sponsors (including a $1000 grant from PTC), they bought a manual mill and a collection of spare parts. They also upgraded their computer systems so their CAD software (PTC Creo) would perform better.

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Lead mentor, Paul Johnston discusses drive systems from VEX Robotics

Then they promoted the team within the school, making everyone feel welcome. By January 2015, the TopperBots grew from 8 core members to 20. Put another way, at Marshall School today, about 1 of every 12 high school students participates in robotics!

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2015 TopperBots courtesy of Kim Kosmatka

Best of all, many of the youngest team members previously participated in FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), a robotics competition for junior high and middle school-aged students.

“The freshmen already know how to use PTC Creo,” says Schonfeld. “Where last year we could only build the base with the software, this year we have the machines and talent to model the whole thing.”

And here’s the best part of the TopperBots’ story. With all these new resources, Schonfeld doesn’t seem very concerned about winning competitions in 2015. He’s got his sights set on a loftier goal.

“We want to be the team that can help out others when their machines go down,” he says. “We want to be like the Lancer Bots.”