Triple Helix is proud to publish this essay as part of our submission for the 2022 FIRST Robotics Competition Chairman’s Award.
Triple Helix has evolved to be a STEM leader in the Hampton Roads (HR) community, with the goals of enabling team sustainability, supporting the larger FIRST community, and spreading the message of FIRST.
BUILDING OUR FOUNDATION – TEAM SUSTAINABILITY
Our approach to team sustainability includes an emphasis on student leadership, strong recruitment, an open-door policy, and building a robust network of supporters in our community through our nonprofit organization, the Intentional Innovation Foundation (IIF).
Triple Helix mentors, parents, sponsor representatives, and other community stakeholders came together in 2015 to establish the all-volunteer public charity IIF to organize community support for Triple Helix, the Peninsula STEM Gym, and the Rumble in the Roads. Providing a stable financial structure for these initiatives, IIF enables us to serve a larger community by operating and sponsoring STEM education activities throughout HR, and opens the door to additional funding opportunities.
Prior to COVID, we addressed the team’s need for an influx of new students by conducting a number of outreach events at local schools, focusing on students who participated in FLL and FTC; we also held multiple open houses and participated in events at our school such as Back to School Night and the activities fair. After the pandemic, safety became our team’s top priority and our recruitment strategy evolved. We reached out to students that had participated on FLL teams that our team members had mentored; currently 80% of our new members came from these teams. Triple Helix is committed to providing an opportunity for all students to participate on an FRC team. We allow students to join who go to schools that do not have a team, as well as those who attend private schools or are homeschooled.
To address the need to retain students and develop student’s leadership skills, we have developed a new student presentation and have a detailed training plan for learning team equipment. The team has developed a structure based on students taking on a number of leadership positions.
There is an overall team captain and leaders for each of the sub-teams such as mechanical, electrical, programming, and scouting. In the last three years, due to their experience on Triple Helix, 100% of our team members have been accepted into a STEM degree program at institutions such as MIT, Rochester, Perdue, Virginia Tech, and UVA.
Triple Helix met the challenge of retaining students during COVID by pioneering the development of TORC, a design-build-fly drone competition within Triple Helix. In this program, we provided cinewhoop-class quadcopter kits to each student and adult team member who were empowered to grow their skills and bring their drones to life, while working within the bounds of protection measures. This virtual and limited in-person program enabled us to maintain a high level of student and mentor engagement through the pandemic, and positioned the team to perform to our potential in the 2021 Infinite Recharge At-Home Competition, where we placed 39th out of 1412 teams.
To recruit and retain mentors, we engage with local businesses and sponsors to raise awareness of Triple Helix and our strong program. Because we are a known leader in the STEM community, we attract FIRST alumni who want to return to the program as mentors. Over 40% of our current mentors participated in one or more FIRST programs as a student. We also benefit from the engagement and varied skillsets of the parents who fill roles from programming mentor to outreach and scouting mentor.
SUPPORTING FIRST PROGRAMS
Triple Helix focuses its efforts in the FIRST community on supporting and sustaining existing teams. Our widest-reaching effort is sharing best practices and lessons learned with the worldwide community via our impactful videos and publications. On our YouTube channel we post instructional design videos, robot demos, season logs, drive team development, and match videos. Examples of our Tech Tip videos include how to build bumpers and drivetrains, programming gamepad controllers, and pneumatic prototyping. This channel has accumulated over 1250 lifetime watch hours and nearly 60k views over the last two years. In addition, our website has a plethora of publications for teams to reference for team management and robot development; for example, our published budget provides insight on the inner administrative workings of an active FRC team. Triple Helix is also a leader in the wider FRC online community, including Chief Delphi, Github, and the FRC Discord; this year we have used these platforms to trailblaze new ideas in autonomous path planning and trajectory following for both differential-drive and swerve-drive robots.
Our primary regional outreach effort is our annual off-season competition, Rumble in the Roads, which we host with partner teams 1610 and 5957. The event attracts over 30 teams from VA, NC, and MD. The pre-season event gives teams the opportunity to test new designs, provides practice for the drive team, as well as the opportunity to interact with other teams in a more relaxed competitive environment. It also provides an incredible opportunity to network with local community leaders, sponsors, and judges who have included high school teachers, university professors, professional engineers, and senior executives of NASA Langley Research Center. To make the Rumble experience accessible to rookie teams, we often waive their competition fees.
Since 2018, we have maintained the Peninsula STEM Gym; a multifaceted collaborative workspace that caters to all levels of FIRST teams. Since opening, the facility has featured FRC practice space, FTC fields sponsored by Newport News Shipbuilding, and a location for FLL teams to test and collaborate. Local FRC and FTC teams have used the space to test their robots at least 30 times since its establishment; the space also hosted a collaboration between a local FRC team and the Newport News Police Department (NNPD) on a robot for their shooting range. Triple Helix hosted an FLL Kickoff at the STEM Gym which gave local teams an opportunity to review the playing field, discuss robot design options, and talk to experts regarding their projects.. Triple Helix continued to keep the STEM Gym open as a socially-distanced meeting space for the local youth STEM competition community throughout COVID.
Triple Helix also provides targeted support to local teams based on their needs. We started a partnership with our school district’s STEM Department to deliver an organized mentoring program to multiple underserved schools, including FLL and FLL Jr. teams. When COVID hit, we transitioned to virtual mentoring, including two teams in Florida and Virginia, which went on to compete at their State Championships. We held FLL practice days and mock judging sessions to allow teams an opportunity to practice both judging and running their robot on the field. We started and coached two FLL Jr. teams at BC Charles Elementary School, and then ran an FLL Jr. Expo which allowed teams to showcase their work. On multiple occasions, we have hosted FLL teams at our shop and have provided them with tours and information, including inviting The Waffle Bunnies to practice their project presentation. This practice helped the team to earn a spot at the 2020 FIRST Championship.
Triple Helix plays an active role in the local FIRST community. We participate in community demonstrations and sponsor-hosted events. The events vary from large such as the CNU Community STEM Day, showcasing our team and robot to over 4,000 visitors, to small such as Mad Science Night at Baron Elementary School. We have provided laptops and FLL mats for STEM events in the community, such as summer programming workshops for ESL, Refugee children, and a homeless shelter.
In 2019 Triple Helix began a novel collaboration with the Occupational Therapy (OT) doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to explore the intersection of rehabilitation & the maker movement. In 2019 and 2020, our team served under contract as a host organization for OT students who designed and executed capstone projects for completion of their doctorate. While embedded in the team for a semester, the VCU students participated in Triple Helix’s FRC build season as junior mentors, learning fabrication skills and the iterative engineering design process. Meanwhile, Triple Helix teammates worked alongside the OT students to design and build low-cost assistive technology for a diverse set of local clients. The collaboration has produced 5 ride-on toy cars for young children with mobility impairments, many switch-adapted toys to help children learn cause-effect relationships, a single-handed archery rig for a summer camp, and more examples which demonstrate the potential of youth STEM teams to rapidly produce custom, low cost devices which improve lives in our community.
Triple Helix values our sponsor relationships, and we’ve volunteered, networked, and celebrated alongside new and longtime sponsors at various events from dinner theatre, to airshows, to galas. We’ve also collaborated on a technical level with our sponsors; for example, parts designed and 3d printed by Triple Helix have been installed into a megascience experiment at sponsor Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.
Giving back is an important part of the mission of Triple Helix. Triple Helix is a certifying organization of the President’s Volunteer Service Award to reward students who volunteer in support of our sponsors and community. In 2020, the team assisted the NNPD by weaving mats for the homeless out of plastic bags.
IT’S IN OUR GENES
Our efforts have truly been impactful to the team and our FIRST community. We really are “more than just robots.”