Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport FIRST Robotics Competition team lead mentor Rick Blight approvingly looked on as some of the 22 program participants gazed in amazement as engineer Gary Huntress demonstrated the warfare center’s robot dog Spot on Jan. 8.
Huntress directed the sunflower yellow robot around the room in the Undersea Collaboration and Technology Outreach Center (UCTOC) using a handheld controller outfitted with a touchpad and two joysticks. The four-legged machine traversed over stairs and other obstacles with ease. Each step landed with a thud, like a Superball being dropped onto a hardwood floor.
“That’s so cool,” Portsmouth High School student Maddie Gomes exclaimed as the robot casually climbed over a two-foot tall case without breaking stride.
Blight, a resident of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, knows the “that’s so cool” moment all too well.
In the fall of 2000 when Blight was a sophomore at Middletown High School, he was on the NUWC Division Newport FRC team, an experience that sparked a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition to his mentor role, Blight is a computer scientist and manager of Division Newport’s Survivability Test Lab in the Ranges, Analysis and Engineering Department, having started working full time at Division Newport in 2014.
“NUWC has sponsored an FRC team since 1996 to inspire kids to pursue careers in STEM, and I can proudly say it worked on me,” Blight said. “I owe a great deal to those that have mentored me in the past and I will continue to volunteer my time to give the same opportunity to new students each robotics season.”
FRC is an international high school level robotics competition. Each year, thousands of teams receive a new game where they are required to compete with a robot they design and build from scratch over the course of about two months. On Jan. 8, participants gathered at the UCTOC to watch the 2022 game reveal, read the rules in-depth and begin brainstorming their robots. [Game overview: https://firstfrc.blob.core.windows.net/frc2022/Manual/Sections/2022FRCGameManual-04.pdf]
The object of the 2022 game is to score an oversized tennis ball (9.5-inches in diameter) into a 4-foot-high goal for one point or a 9-foot-high goal for two points. Teams also can score points by having their robot climb an elevated set of monkey bars between four and 15 points depending on how high the robot climbs. The game is played with three robots per alliance trying to outscore each other in 2-minute, 30-second long matches.
“FIRST Robotics — and STEM outreach in general — allow students to interact with professional scientists and engineers. These students not only learn STEM skills, but learn about potential career paths after high school as well,” Blight said. “Students get to go into higher education or a trade with unique firsthand experiences, like using computer-aided design (CAD), operating machining tools or programming autonomous routines. They also work alongside adult professionals and become much better working on teams. The students become less intimidated by adults and, in turn, improve their public speaking and interview skills.
“Alumni stay in contact with the team and come back to intern and work here at NUWC,” Blight said. “Some then go on to volunteer as mentors themselves, and the cycle continues. Students get an opportunity for a rewarding career and NUWC gets a steady stream of STEM professionals.”
Blight’s turn in the cycle began in 2000 after his mother, Arlene, a former head of Division Newport’s Employee Financial Services Division, heard about the program from some of the mentors.
“I had an interest in computers and gaming,” Blight said, “and the idea of a strategy game played with large robots looked like it would be a lot of fun.”
Blight stuck with FIRST through his senior year of high school in 2003. He continued his STEM studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI), and graduated with a degree in computer science in 2007. After a few years working as a project manager for the defense contractor GP Strategies, he took an internship at Division Newport through the Naval Acquisition Development Program (NADP) in 2011. Three years later, Division Newport hired him as a computer scientist to work on combat systems development.
Once back at Division Newport, Blight knew it was time to reciprocate to the next generation the opportunities he was afforded as a high schooler.
“Before the 2010 season, the team transitioned from a school-based team to a community-based team,” Blight said. “I shared NUWC’s goal of making this program available to any student that wanted to participate, whether they attend public, private or home school. After discussions with the other mentors and a ton of guidance from previous mentors, I took on the role as lead mentor.”
Blight is hardly alone in his desire to grow the next generation of scientists and engineers. Division Newport offers a number of opportunities, of which Candida Desjardins moderates as the director of Educational Outreach. For the FRC team, Blight is joined by Division Newport employees Mark Seidman, Kim Lesieur, Tim Sieben, Rick Casey, Josh Wolf, Thomas Dolan, Elizabeth Stevens, Mike DeSousa and Geoff Wertman.
“These mentors each volunteer hundreds of hours each season to guide students and make the program successful,” Blight said.
This season, 22 students from 13 different schools in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts are participating. A maximum of 40 students each season are allowed and registration for the next session is in the fall.
Students are eligible for more than $100 million in scholarships each season. The scholarships are awarded on merit and have nothing to do with how well the robot performs. More information is available at the nonprofit organization website www.AquidneckIslandRobotics.org.
“Each season when we go to competitions, we get to see how all the other teams ‘solve’ the game challenge,” Blight said. “It’s amazing to see all the different solutions to the same problem. A lot of times we’ll see a design and say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’
“What’s cool for me is seeing all the students engaged in creating a robot to solve the problem, not realizing the fun of robotics is tricking them into learning new skills. Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, has a quote that I come back to regularly: ‘I don’t use kids to build robots. I use robots to build kids.’”
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