Alabama robotics team is heading to world championship

Published 9:04 am Saturday, April 2, 2022

When Kyler Mitchell was a freshman at Opelika High School, he joined the robotics club to try something new. Now, he is the captain of the team and knows the S.T.E.M. field is the path he wants to travel in life.

But he did not know the heights the organization would take him and his team members.

In early March, the Opelika Greatest Robotics Engineers (O.G.R.E.) won the first place award at the FIRST Robotics regional competition in Orlando, Florida. The team will soon head to Houston, Texas, for the FIRST World’s Competition.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

“When we saw that banner come down and it had our names on it as the winner, it felt really amazing,” Mitchell said.” We were all just so excited and proud.”

The 17 members of the student-led club used their 98-pound aluminum robot named “The Dragon” to battle over 60 teams at the regional competition. The Dragon can extend to a maximum height of 5-foot-6 and pick up and shoot balls into the air or at designated targets.

The robot cost about $2,500 dollars to build, and funds were donated from local and national sponsors.

In the world competition, O.G.R.E. will be facing 400 teams from around the world.

Though this is not the team’s first time advancing to the world game, this was not an easy journey for the team.

“We worked our butts off,” said Cohen Crews, a sophomore at OHS. “It may sound cliché, but it was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this.”

Brenda Howell, O.G.R.E.’s lead advisor, said preparing for the competition is “the hardest fun you will ever have.”

In January, the team received the theme from FIRST headquarters, an international youth robotics organization. This year’s theme was “Rapid Reaction.”

They created a 3D blueprint, purchased materials, built the robot and tested it out to ensure that it was fully operational.
Team members worked long hours after school and on weekends, sometimes traveling out of state to test the robot. Some students are involved in other extracurricular activities and part-time jobs.

“It can be overwhelming for us sometimes,” Mitchell said. “Trying to make sure that you are staying afloat in school while building a robot for a competition can be a lot. You have to be invested and disciplined.”

But one thing that keeps them going is the family-like atmosphere.

“We work hard, but we love even harder,” Mitchell said. “It can be difficult sometimes to make sure that everything works out in our favor, but we want to be here with each other. We are like brothers and sisters and we get through the rough patches together.”

In 2020, Howells’ husband, Richard, died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She said he was involved with the robotics club and had a relationship with current team members. After his passing, the robotic club supported her through a tough time, she said.

“These are the ones who have sustained me through that grief,” Howell said. “At his funeral, there was a whole row of robotics kids there. These are my kids; they are my family.”

They also have support from one of their “big brothers” many miles away, robotics club alum and mentor Alex Rice.

Rice, a native of Opelika, is a sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying electrical engineering and computer science. He meets with students via Zoom and directs them on using hardware tools, object-oriented programming and various electronic and software functionalities.

He says that working with the team reminds him how he got to where he is today.

“I owe a lot of my success now to the team, so I do what I can to help,” Rice said.” At the end of the day, I mentor Opelika because this is my home. These are smart, passionate kids that will do well regardless of whether or not I mentor them. I want the next generation of students to grow up and do wonderful things and change the world.”

Howell said watching the team come together in the classroom and during competition is a delight for her.

“To be at a place where you are cheering for a robot, the same way you cheer for the Opelika Bulldogs out on the field on a Friday night, is just amazing,” Howell said. “Seeing my kids out there and knowing that they were behind something so innovative that they’ve built from the ground up, it’s mind-blowing.”

But at the end of the day, she wants them to see the “bigger picture.”

“You can’t spell progress without O.G.R.E.,” Howell said. “I want them to win, but I think the biggest award from this competition and future ones would be to learn the skills that will make them better people and the world a better place. I want them to continue to focus on learning, growing, asking for help and helping others.”

With the competition just a few weeks away, the team members are busy repairing and refining their robot for the upcoming game.

“We are ready and in this together,” Mitchell said. “Win or lose, the hard work will pay off.”