AYER -- On January 6, the 80-plus members of Ayer Shirley's FIRST Robotics team packed their high school STEM room for the livestream reveal of the 2018 challenge for the international FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

Yes, you read that correctly -- over 80 members. Ayer Shirley Regional High School's FIRST team, Andromeda One (FRC 4905), grew exponentially this year, with the addition of nearly two-dozen freshmen and seven mentors. The growth was thanks, in part, to a first-time "Just for Girls" night last fall that garnered 12 new inquisitive, fun, and enthusiastic students plus three new mentors.

As all fourscore students and mentors watched and listened intently, the FIRST 2018 "big reveal" video introducing the game, for which Andromeda One and over 4,000 other teams must build a robot, began dropping clues about a retro world in which teams are trapped in an 8-bit video game.

On a playing field complete with a five-foot-high scale, two power switches, two portals, an exchange and a vault, FIRST teams must use crate-sized power cubes to defeat "the boss," the video divulged.

Robots of each three-team alliance must collect and deliver the power cubes to tip the scale in their favor. Teams will also exchange power cubes for "power ups"--force, boost, and levitate-- which provide a timed advantage during the match.


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At the end of the game, alliance robots will work together to climb the scale tower to face the boss.

After the video, Will Doyle, a senior who joined the team in his sophomore year, was fired up.

"This is the year!," he exclaimed after learning the challenge. "The team is so young, but the freshmen are picking up some huge roles. Super excited for this season!"

It is not uncommon to find Doyle--who last year was a Dean's List Finalist competing at the World Championship games for his outstanding leadership abilities and passion for FIRST--literally jumping up and down when he gets an idea or solves an engineering problem.

Andromeda One has a total of just six weeks to build and perfect its game-playing robot, so on day one the team immediately began poring over the rulebook and sharing what they learned. By the second day, the team was prototyping various robot subsystems such as collectors, grippers, and drive bases.

"It was amazing to see these students, many of them new to the team, just jump right in, working with student team leaders and adult mentors to design and build working models," said new mentor Dina Samfield. "The team spent its first few months of the school year holding design team workshops and business meetings, and by January 6 they couldn't have been more ready."

Besides collaborating as a team, Andromeda One also mentors other FIRST teams and has launched an ambitious initiative called MassFIRST, the aim of which is bringing FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programs into every school district in the state.

The campaign is focused on FIRST Lego League, the entry-level start of the FIRST program. The idea is that this early programming will lead to an increase in student demand for more STEM opportunities.

Last November, several MassFIRST teammates attended the Massachusetts STEM Summit at the DCU Center in Worcester. There, they met Mass. Executive Office of Education Assistant Secretary for Career Education Bob LePage, with whom they discussed their plans for expanding FIRST robotics statewide.

"There are 71 towns in Massachusetts without a FIRST robotics program in their public school districts, and we'd like to get that number down to zero," explained Andromeda One assistant coach and mentor Maureen Kilcommins. "Over time, these programs will grow to middle and high schools, creating a technology education pipeline from grades K-12."

LePage concurred, and at the end of December he visited the students at their high school to discuss grant options for funding new elementary school-level teams. 

"The work the team is doing is providing them a rich applied learning experience that includes not just advanced technical skills, but also essential skills in organizing, planning, communication and teamwork--skills that are highly valued by employers," said LePage after his visit. "The students will have excellent college and career opportunities in the Commonwealth's growing innovation and STEM economy."

"I really want to thank him for giving us a ton of advice to help get our mission to the next level," said MassFIRST team member Ariel Velasquez after meeting with LePage.

Learn more about Andromeda One and its many generous sponsors at http://www.andromedaone.wordpress.com, and on social media @frc4905.