SWARM, Albany's combined high school robotics team, wanted to test out a new player for the drive team at an off-season competition this past Saturday.
Problem: The player, Keely Kohlleppel, uses a wheelchair and couldn't see the playing field from her vantage point. The team talked to competition organizers, who asked whether anyone had thoughts on how to help.
That's when Larry Sheeley stepped up. Sheeley is a mentor for Team 1425, Error Code Xero of Wilsonville, the host school for the competition. Sheeley's son, Lance, has physical disabilities too, and used to be a part of 1425, so the Sheeleys have had practice on adapting to any number of situations.
Sheeley's son was never on 1425's drive team and used a walker, rather than a wheelchair, at competitions. But Sheeley is still skilled at building ramps. So the Tuesday before the competition, he took four hours and a stack of plywood and put together a two-piece, portable ramp and chair station to let Kohlleppel see the playing field.
Never mind that SWARM is already a strong competitor in the region, or that Error Code Xero was in the hunt for the win at Saturday's contest. All FIRST Robotics Competitions center on the concepts of gracious professionalism and "coopertition," which means helping other teams in any way they might need.
"It's a great example of what sets FIRST apart from a lot of other competitive programs," said David Perry, executive director of the Oregon Robotics Tournament Outreach Program.
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. A youth organization that operates competitions in robotics, Lego robotics and other technology challenges, it's open to students worldwide.
But in Oregon, Perry said he doesn't know of a time when Robotics Tournament Outreach Program has worked with a drive team member with a physical disability. So the organization asked SWARM and Error Code Xero to give their feedback on how well the ramp worked, and the plan is to keep it for future competitions.
"We want to include as many kids in FIRST as we can. We're eager to invite them in and find ways to accommodate," Perry said. "That (ramp) is an asset we'll hang onto and use however we need it."
Sheeley never thought twice about lending his skills. "We found out that one of the kids on the team was disabled and needed some help," he said with a shrug. "It's an inclusion thing. That's why I was more than willing to help make this happen."
Likewise, SWARM never thought twice about trying Kohlleppel on the drive team, or about getting a hand with access.
"If you put the work in, you can get anybody to do anything," said Melissa Smith, 17, a senior at West Albany High School and co-captain for SWARM.
Kohlleppel, 16, is a junior at West and just starting her first year with SWARM. The formal competition season kicks off in January.
"I have six or seven friends on the team," she said. "I wanted to last year, but I had a bunch of medical stuff so I wasn't able to get to most of the meetings."
Kohlleppel said she was the one to point out the line of sight problem her chair creates. "We did an event at the state fair where I drove, but I couldn't see much," she said.
She said she was surprised to learn the Outreach Program had never come across her particular challenge before. That tells her, she said, that either most students with disabilities haven't felt they can try robotics, or "that nobody's ever bothered to think of an adaptation."
Denise Cardinali, mentor for Team 997, the Spartan Robotics team at Corvallis High School, is pretty sure it isn't the latter. Her team also has a student this year with a physical disability, although not on the drive team, and has found accommodations are mostly a matter of planning ahead.
FIRST teams go out of their way to help one another no matter what the situation is, Cardinali said, from offering tools if something breaks to delaying a match if someone isn't ready.
Case in point: Her team, 997, has been an informational resource for SWARM, even helping two years ago when both teams were scheduled to go to the Pacific Northwest Championships. "I said, I've got a bus. I've got a hotel. You're coming with me," she said.
Saturday's event, Girls Gen, was also all about inclusion. Even with a strong emphasis nationwide on improving access for girls to careers in science, math and technology, many robotics teams are still dominated by boys. So Girls Gen was a chance for girls-only drive teams to put their robots through the paces of a competition.
It was SWARM's first time to attend. The team came in 13th out of more than 20 teams and was chosen by the No. 2 team as an alliance partner for the finals.
The off-season competition was a good way to try out new people, build confidence and leadership skills, and get some drive practice before the new season starts, said Smith, the co-captain.
And, added Emma Cushing, 17, who leads SWARM's mechanical team, "It's showing people we are as capable as the guys."