Gravenhurst Robotics Team Grows To Nearly 30 Students Heading Into Third Season

Team captains Tyler Sheppard and Hayden Foley with some of the club's new tools as well as their Winner Banner from a 2018 competition at Georgian College. Photo courtesy of Linda Hachmer

The GryphTech Robotics team started as just seven or eight students working on a robot in the school cafeteria. Now, heading into their third season, the team has grown to 27 students that are gearing up to build this year’s robot in a dedicated room of their own.

“Our first year, we were building out of a custodial closet,” said science teacher and team mentor Iggi van Kooten. “They emptied a closet out where we could store our materials and we built in the cafeteria every night after school from 3:30 ‘til 9:30, and then we’d have to put it back in the closet until the next day.”

The administration at Gravenhurst High School, where GryphTech Robotics 6864 is based, saw the tremendous growth of the club. The school now runs two robotics programs in the curriculum and the team has their own space within the school. Their room is equipped like a university apartment, van Kooten said, with a fridge, microwave and coffee maker to help the team keep going during their build season, but the group won’t start crafting their robot until early 2020. GryphTech Robotics participates in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a U.S.-based initiative that is projecting a 2020 season with 100,000 student participants from age 14 to 18, representing 4,000 teams from 35 different countries.

Greg Clifford and Hayden Foley learn about electronics in order to take a leadership role on the team. Photo courtesy of Linda Hachmer

“They release what the game will be on Jan. 4,” said co-captain and Grade 12 student Hayden Foley. “That’s when we will watch the reveal video, read the rules, and then we will know what we have to build and what tasks we have to accomplish with our robot.”

One season had a game that was very similar to soccer, he said, while another year included a game where the robots had to race around a track and throw balls over a bar. Major companies have sponsored the event in the past, including Boeing and NASA. This year, Lucas Films and Star Wars are presenting the competition, so Foley and his fellow club members think this year’s event could be space-themed.

Their club will need to rank high enough in two regional competitions to qualify for provincials and get their chance at going to the world championship. The team made it to provincials in their first year after winning a competition at Georgian College, but an electrical short in one of their motors kept them from the provincial competition in their second season. It’s their goal to make it back to provincials.

“In our first year, our robot was built entirely by hand tools and my toolbox that came from my garage,” van Kooten said, adding that they did all their cutting with a hacksaw before they managed to get some power tools last season. This year, they’ve added even more equipment to their arsenal. “We’re hoping that we can become increasingly more competitive as we obtain the tools that other teams have access to.”

Hannah Bee learns how to use power tools and creates a drivetrain. Photo courtesy of Linda Hachmer

For now, the club is working to fundraise and train in preparation for the build season. The club’s overall budget comes out to about $30,000, which goes toward registration fees, competition expenses, tools, equipment and promotion. Their current fundraising initiative is the 100 for 100 campaign, which asks 100 local businesses to donate at least $100.

Along with their fundraising efforts, students that will be working on the robot are undergoing safety training to learn about the power tools they’ll use throughout the build season. The club is also taking time for team building to help get the group, which includes about 10 new members, used to working together.

“It is going to be a bit of a pressure cooker once we start building our robot and at competition, we want to have those relationships,” said retired teacher and team mentor Linda Hachmer. “Because we have new people on our team this year, we want to make sure there’s that friendship connection so that when they need to work together under pressure, they are able to do that.”

Many of the new members are not Grade 9 and 10 students, van Kooten added, but rather senior level students that have seen the excitement build over the last two years. The enthusiasm has also carried outside of GHS with a number of students working toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Team captains Hayden Foley and Tyler Sheppard with last year’s robot. Photo courtesy of Linda Hachmer

“We’ve had seven alumni leave our programs to go off to post secondary, and every single one of them is studying in the STEM field in some way, shape, or form,” van Kooten said. “They’re all in engineering, science programs, architectural design. This program leads kids into that direction and will leave them with employable skills when they finish.”

The club has also led some students to change the course of their academic career, including co-captain Tyler Sheppard, who is taking an extra year in high school before heading off to post secondary.

“Iggi van Kooten came into physics class everyday raving about robotics and I was like, ‘What are you talking about? That doesn’t seem like very much fun,’” Sheppard said. “I decided to join the team with one of my friends last year, and I absolutely fell in love with engineering and robotics. Now I’ve decided to apply for mechanical engineering in the fall.”

Sheppard is excited to see how the group has grown and, as a female leader of the group, she’s particularly happy that they have a gender-balanced team this year. In addition to inspiring individual students, the club works to promote STEM in the community by participating in local events, such as the Gravenhurst Winter Carnival and the Santa Claus Parade. 

They also help out with Robo Fair, an elementary school robotics competition hosted by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. Hachmer and van Kooten are on the planning committee, and student participants act as judges and timekeepers for the event to help encourage young kids to get involved in robotics.

Paul Kelly attends a competition with the team in Oshawa. Photo courtesy of Linda Hachmer

“What we’re trying to do is become an entity in Gravenhurst so that people know that we are a robotics team, not just a small extracurricular activity that’s part of the high school,” Hachmer said. “We belong to the Chamber of Commerce because we’re a not-for-profit group that is trying to really promote STEM in Gravenhurst.”

While van Kooten and Hachmer do a great deal to help the students throughout the season, the group is largely student run and many of the programmers are self taught. Hachmer said the students have come together to create great build, programming and fundraising teams this year, which they hope will make for their best season yet.

“All of our subcommittees have incredible strengths,” Hachmer said. “What we are really looking forward to is seeing all of those strengths come together to have a really successful season.”

To keep up with GryphTech Robotics 6864 and their 2020 season, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



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