St. Albert H.S. robotics team interacts with counterparts around the world
St. Albert High School’s Thunderstruck is not just an award-winning robotics team, but a group of ambassadors for students in other states and countries.
According to Kevin White, St Albert’s communications director, on Jan. 25 the team had a zoom session with Starburst, the robotics team at the Diocesan Girls’ School in Hong Kong, China.
According to Andrea Barnes, co-coach with Lynn Gardner, it was one of many cross-cultural connections the team made.
“We’ve worked with teams from 40 states and 10 countries,” she said. “We had contact with a team from Greece but couldn’t find a time that suited both of us.”
Senior Abby French, the team’s social media manager, occasionally receives direct messages from teams around the world via Instagram, she said. Usually she is skeptical.
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“Sometimes we’re like, ‘I don’t know what this call is going to be like,'” she said. “But I saw their message and I looked at their team and I said, ‘This looks real. Your team is about the same level as ours.”
The two teams exchanged messages and hope continued to mount — especially when Thunderstruck learned that Starburst’s team is fluent in English and had no trouble speaking English during the call, White said.
Next came the issue of navigating the time difference. Hong Kong is 14 hours ahead of Council Bluffs. Thunderstruck was given special permission to be at school on Wednesday nights – this is church night so all practices usually end earlier than normal. The call was scheduled for 8pm on Wednesday, which was 10am on Thursday in Hong Kong.
French said it started slowly, like any first-time conversation between strangers.
“We were all shy at first, but they had a presentation for us, and after they presented that, we warmed to each other,” she said.
Barnes said there was something special about being a witness.
“I think they were just really excited to be speaking to a team that was so far away,” she said. “It was just two groups of teenagers talking. Our children were well informed and asked good questions.”
Both teams compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge and face similar technical issues, Barnes said.
“They have the same problems, the same mindsets,” she said. “Nevertheless, they have a lot of fun. Everyone laughed and talked. I am so proud of these children.”
While Thunderstruck is nearing the end of its season, Starburst is just beginning its season. This allowed the Council Bluffs team to share a few words of wisdom with their colleagues.
“We told them about the problems we’ve had in games so far and what to look out for,” French said. “We talked about ideas. One of their ideas was a turntable on a robot. Sammy (Horvath) said, “That was our idea, but one of our mentors told us it probably wouldn’t be the best idea.”
“Sammy thought it was really cool that they had the same idea, and that’s what her team struggled with,” French said.
One of the reasons the teams have so much in common is that FIRST Tech Challenge is an organization that hosts robotic competitions around the world. Although their seasons are at different times of the school year, they essentially compete under the same (policy) rules. The hashtag #FTC carries a lot of weight and connects teams around the world.
“The game is universal, so they’re going to use the same pitch and score,” Barnes said. “Almost every state has an FTC organization, and typically few teams move from their championship to world championships.
“North American World Championship competitions are held in Houston or Detroit and I think there are only teams from the United States. There will be other world championships in different places around the world, but as far as I know there is no world championship for all teams.”
French said the Zoom call proved that teenagers are teenagers, even if they’re thousands of miles apart and seemingly separated by numerous cultural and logistical barriers.
“I don’t think I thought that a team from another country would be so similar to us, with the same problems, the same strengths and even the same ideas,” she said. “I just found it interesting how similar we were.”
It won’t be the last time Thunderstruck team members speak to their new friends, Barnes said.
“Our plan is to repeat the Zoom call with Hong Kong to see how their season is going,” she said.
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