Hammond Torbotics team headed to world championships
The Advocate. Vic Couvillion. April 11, 2018.
Hammond High Magnet School’s award-winning Torbotics Team, fresh off receiving a prestigious award at the 2018 Bayou Regional in Kenner, is preparing to participate in the FIRST World Championship robotics competition scheduled for April 18-21 in Houston.

The Torbotics team won the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, World Championship Chairman’s Award at the Kenner event. That honor earned the team the opportunity to compete in the Houston competition, said Dan Thomasson, of the Hammond High School faculty, who, along with Jean-Marie Williams, mentors the Torbotics team.

The Bayou Regional Chairman’s Award is the most prestigious award for FIRST, which sponsors robot competition at schools.

“The Chairman’s Award honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST. The Chairman’s Award is presented to the team judged to have the most significant measurable impact on its partnerships among its participants and community over a sustained period, not just a single build season,” Thomasson said.

The Torbotics team, which derives its name from the school’s athletic teams, known as the Tors, had to build a robot that was capable of performing complicated tasks. Williams explained that on a specific date, scholastic robotics teams who wish to compete on the regional level are given a specific “game” that their robot must successfully complete. The teams then have six weeks to build the robot in preparation for competition.

“Everybody gets the release on what the game will be at the same time and all teams have the exact same amount of time to build their robots. Our students knew that the competition was fierce but they were up to the challenge. They went to work and completed their robot on time,” she said.

The Bayou Regional meet attracted 54 teams from eight states and several foreign countries. At the Houston competition, the Torbotics team will be pitted against outstanding robotics teams from throughout the United States and the world.

Thomasson said the students complete all the work on their own in preparation for competition.

“The Torbotics effort is student led, student driven and student funded. I tell the students what to do, and I step out of the way. This represents a tremendous amount of work, and it involves much more than just construction of the robot,” he said.

Expanding on what goes into the effort, Williams noted, “To earn the Chairman’s Award, the team had to present a strong business plan, construct and adhere to a risk analysis matrix, provide documentation on how they have made a measurable, lasting impression on others throughout their community … all while also building a 120-pound robot based on sound engineering principles.”

The fundraising effort is an important and necessary challenge for members of the Torbotics Team. Thomasson said the Tangipahoa Parish School Board provides the facilities where the team accomplishes its work, but all parts for the robots plus travel expenses must be raised by the team.

Parts for the robot alone cost about $2,700. The team is now trying to raise $20,000 to pay for the trip to Houston.

Thomasson said the team will leave Hammond very early on a Thursday morning for the drive to Houston and will begin the competition that same day. They will have to stay in Houston through Sunday, necessitating the need for hotel rooms and restaurant meals.

The team had to pay a fee of $5,000 to compete at what Thomasson termed “the world championships” in Houston.

The team conducts regular fundraisers and relies on considerable financial assistance from local and national corporate sponsors and grants from several governmental agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

Thomasson said his students learn many important lessons through involvement with the Torbotics program. He said at the Bayou Regional competition, the robot was not performing up to the standards the students expected so they performed what he termed “open heart surgery” on their machine.

“They made the decision to rework the robot. The students said, ‘We are going to do this,’ and they did. They completed their work in a little over an hour. They learned the valuable lessons of problem-solving, working under pressure and working as a team,” he said.

Williams said the robotics competition "combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. FIRST Robotics Competition is often referred to as the ultimate ‘sport for the mind.’ The students who are a part of Hammond High’s Torbotics Team call it the hardest fun you’ll ever have.

“It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get,” she said

Participation on the Torbotics team has positive impacts on the students, Williams said. The students are actively engaged in STEM, the educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Thomasson said students involved in robotics competition have a 100 percent graduation rate and 95 percent go on to college careers in one of the STEM fields.

Besides the Chairman’s Award, the Torbotics team was also named as a finalist for the UL Hard Hat Safety Award and won the UL Pit Safety Award.

Thomasson said the “pit” is an important part of the competition. “The pit is similar to the area in car racing where crews tend to the race cars. We have a designated area where we have our tools, spare parts, electronic equipment and all we need to compete. Our team works from there and they are judged on preparation as well as performance.”

The team was busy in the week after the regional competition packing up their robot and all the other gear they will need for the competition in Houston. After the regionals, the robot was encased in a plastic blanket and the students were not allowed to make any improvements to the machine that will be competing in Houston.

“Torbotics is a way I can further my education,” said Torbotics participant Shaylee Puls. “This is a way for me to get ahead. No matter how young you are, you are not too young to start learning about what you want to do in life. I really enjoy Torbotics. … Everyone helps each other out as we all try to succeed.”

Alissa Blanchard said she originally wasn’t interested robotics but decided to give the team a try.

"My eyes were opened to a new profession and new interests. This is really helping my education,” Blanchard said. “Torbotics is a way for young people to be involved in something that teaches real skills. My sister was a member of the Torbotics Team, and she got me interested. I attended some of the summer camps that Torbotics offer to make money, and I was hooked. That made me want to come to Hammond High School and pursue classes in STEM and be a part of a great group.”

Thomasson said about 150 students are involved in Torbotics and about 35 of them make up the competition team. Participants spend considerable time in the lab, and Thomasson said the students are willing to work after school and on weekends.

“Many of our students don’t want to go home. … They enjoy working on projects so much that they want to stay here and work. I have to run them off when it is time to close the building,” he said.

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