The Robot Army

by Dan Mullins

Mayday! Mayday! The ship’s particle accelerator and the airlock are both offline! We need nanobots and we’re running out of time! Get the pilots to the robot controls!

This situation will soon be solved if the budding engineers, coders, designers and writers from Macdonald High have anything to say about it. And they’ll need to communicate, because their robot will be working cooperatively with four others on the playing field.
The scenario is this year’s CRC Robotics Competition, entitled “Arcanum”. Based on past performance, this year the MacDonald High School Robotics Club will be competing in Division 1 (the more advanced division) alongside CEGEP teams. In fact, Mac’s neighbour is the nearby John Abbott College, whose team will be competing in Division 2 – Mac is that good. The school has been fielding teams since 2004, with only one break – for COVID.
The program is very student-centred. In conversation, both teacher Ted Duckworth and technician Allan Dornan, who oversee the running of the club, are quick to insist that the spotlight be aimed in the direction of the young people doing most of the work. The school’s long experience with the competition is part of the reason for their success, as they benefit from the mentors who come back years after graduating to impart their learning to the new generation. “We have a significant pool of former students who come and help us out,” Duckworth notes.

From Left to Right: Ted Duckworth, Captain Zyanna Bembridge, and Allan Dornan

This year’s overall captain is Zyanna Bembridge, a Grade 11 student who hopes to pursue visual arts in the future. Referring to mentorship difficulties caused by COVID, Bembridge says “…we have a lot of kids this year, so we can teach them all the new important stuff. ‘Cause we weren’t able to last year. This year we can focus on teaching them so that we know that they’re going to be OK next year without us.”

The CRC competition has seven components: the game itself, as well as competitions for the radio-controlled robot, the kiosk, the programming, as well as a video, a website, and a tutorial. At Macdonald High School, these tasks are divided between four teams. Each of Mac’s four teams has a Team Captain.

As well as being the overall captain, Bembridge is the captain of the video team. “We use Premiere Pro and After Effects,” she says, to create the special-effects-heavy video.

From Left to Right: Kylie Snow (Robotics Captain), Zyanna Bembridge (Video and Overall Captain), Zain Elbergammy (Website Captain), and Talia Martin (Kiosk Captain).

Zain Elbergarmy is captain of the web team. “We create a website,” he says, “we do journalism and we do 3D animation.”
Talia Martin is captain of the kiosk team. “We build this… kiosk building for the competition where the robot is worked on,” she says, “then it’s presented, and it’s basically like a giant arts and crafts project.” The Kiosk is built around the team’s theme for the year. Certain special challenges exist for this type of construction. “We have to be able to put it up and take it down easily to bring it to the competition,” says Martin, which is saying something, considering it’s larger than most backyard sheds and comes complete with power outlets.

Students work on the video

Finally, Kylie Snow is captain of the robotics team. “We… construct the robot to complete different games.” The robotics team is also responsible for programming their robot. “This year my group is really good,” says Snow.
The club’s philosophy is to encourage more experienced students to allow newer members to learn by trying. 

Students making a piece for the robot on a metal former

The club meets every Friday for a marathon session that lasts from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m., with the junior students leaving earlier. Pizzas are ordered and Mac High is buzzing with enthusiasm and machine tools. That may seem like a major commitment, but when asked if students are involved with the Robotics Club on other days, Bembridge simply says “Yep, all the time.”