Triple Helix is proud to publish this essay as part of our submission for the 2019 FIRST Robotics Competition Chairman’s Award.
Triple Helix has been a leader of the Hampton Roads (HR) community since 2008. Since then we’ve worked tirelessly to spread the values of FIRST and to increase interest in STEM in our region. During the past five years, we’ve forged new connections between our FIRST team and the VA Peninsula at over 90 community and sponsor-hosted events, encouraging others to join the FIRST community.
Rumble in the Roads, the annual off-season competition we operate with partner teams 5957 and 1610, is our largest STEM outreach event. Since 2014, we’ve attracted an average of 30 teams from VA, NC, and MD and 300 visitors, including students, parents, mentors, and government figures such as the school’s superintendent and the Vice Mayor of Newport News. This event is an opportunity for teams to practice and train new students before the start of the next build season. In 2018 we supported rookie teams 7429, 7675, and 7715, helping them prepare for the following FRC season by waiving their Rumble competition fees and partnering them with veterans who shared their experience and resources like their drive teams, pit crews, and drivetrains.
In 2018, Triple Helix established the Peninsula STEM Gym, which is a shared space that provides a plethora of options for local FIRST teams to explore. Attached to a community woodworking makerspace, the STEM Gym serves as a workshop, practice field, and collaboration space for all levels of FIRST teams. We have a full-size FRC and FTC playing field available for teams to effectively prepare for competitions. Plans are evolving to further expand the use of the space for local FIRST teams.
Our team has maintained a YouTube channel since 2013, where we post tutorials, build season logs, and videos of matches from competitions we attend. These videos are used by FRC teams for drive team development. This past year the team has taken on the task of building an archive of mechanical video tutorials, such as how to build bumpers or a drivetrain, as a way to assist young teams and curious minds alike. We post videos of tested engineering and team practices for the FRC community and provide a long-term visual history of our team. For example, our 2018 Gripper Prototype video gained over 47,000 views and influenced a number of teams’ intakes, such as team 5472, who thanked us for posting it as well as our “contributions to the FIRST community.”
Our sponsors are a part of our identity, and they have a huge impact on how we perform at competitions and in the community. For example, we interacted with over 1,200 visitors when we displayed our robot alongside sponsors DoD STEM and SPAWAR at the 2016 Naval Air Station Oceana Air Show in VA Beach. At NASA Langley’s invitation, we demonstrated our robot at their Exploration Days event at Busch Gardens Williamsburg for over 20,000 park visitors from around the world during each day of the event. We’ve exhibited at NASA’s Youth Day where we were a key part of the experience for NASA employees and their children. In 2016, we partnered with sponsor Jefferson Lab to host the HR FRC Kickoff; they later commissioned our team to 3D print parts for the GlueX Experiment. In 2017, manufacturing firm Continental Corp. invited us to tour their facilities and show our robot to their staff. We show our gratitude for our local sponsor, the Junior Woman’s Club of Hilton Village, by annually supporting their dinner theater event as wait staff. Club members stated “Your students did a wonderful job waiting tables for us at Dinner Theatre!” In July of 2017, NASA and Boeing invited us to the NASA Langley Centennial Gala; student leaders mingled with industry officials, made professional connections, and participated in a milestone event. Later that summer, we gave a presentation about our team’s strategies and structure to AFCEA’s HR chapter at Langley AFB.
Our team regularly works with organizations, businesses, and schools to incorporate FIRST into our region. We annually participate at the CNU Community STEM Day where we demonstrate robot capabilities to 4,500 visitors. Our team has previously run the FRC Summit at CNU, where regional teams share knowledge on topics such as scouting, build season strategies, and off-season projects. We participated in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 YMCA STEM Fairs at the VA Air and Space Center, showing our robot to over 1,600 students, local dignitaries, and business leaders.
We sponsor and support several local FIRST teams. During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, we provided mentor help and technical resources to FRC team 5957. We donated critical equipment to Warwick River Christian School’s FLL team 24104 when they formed in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, we provided mentor support to FLL team 2581. We continue to sponsor Hines Middle School FTC team by funding their registration and competition fees. In 2017, we loaned climbing ropes, mentor support, and mechanical resources to teams that needed them at competitions. Regarding our past support, FRC team 5546’s head mentor has stated that
“Triple Helix has had a tremendous impact on our rookie year. In the offseason leading up to 2015 they sponsored us for a free trip to Rumble in the Roads, and let us use one of their practice robots to compete with. This really helped us see FIRST-hand what to expect in the upcoming FRC year. Earlier in the school year, they donated one of their previous robots to help us practice and learn how FRC bots operate. Because of this donation, we were able to jump right into our build season, and had our own working drivetrain quickly. On top of all that, they have been very open and generous with information, working with us during a brainstorming session at Franklin, and offering to help us troubleshoot our RoboRio. We owe much of our already successful build season to Team 2363.”
During the 2017 season, our team provided a home to FRC team 122’s students and mentors during an inactive year. Following this experience, one of team 122’s students stated that
“Being on the Triple Helix team helped me grow and experience STEM and leadership from a completely different perspective. It was refreshing to see how such an organized and structured team functioned. For instance, Team 122 never held official ‘reflecting’ sessions that compared previously set goals to what was accomplished at the competitions. However, after being on Triple Helix, I realized just how important that step is to improving as a team. Additionally, communicating through Slack was something that was new to me, but a great method of communication that I learned thanks to Triple Helix. I plan on bringing all these great things I learned from this team to Team 122.”
We’re devoted to making a positive impact on our community through FIRST. A favorite outreach opportunity is with a chapter of Cooperating Hampton Roads Organizations for Minorities in Engineering (CHROME) at a local church; after meeting 20 curious CHROME Club elementary school students in 2015, the students asked for us to return for more robot-related antics, which we have successfully done in 2016 and 2017. We introduced our robot to the 2016 STEM for Girls summer camp hosted by the Peninsula Jaycees and to the visitors at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Nature Connects: Art with LEGO event.
We’re dedicated to spreading awareness of FIRST within our school system. While managing different aspects of the 2016 VA Odyssey of the Mind State Finals Tournament, we were able to advertise our team and answer questions about FIRST. At the end of this event, former MHS Activities Director Pete Mercier stated
“Triple Helix not only dominates the world of robotics, but they are absolutely committed to community service! Even as they are planning for HUGE competitions of their own, they helped all day on Saturday, running events, helping guests, and assisting our cafeteria staff with the serving of food and disposal of trash! They were eager and helpful and we thank [their mentors] for not just helping to get these great kids involved, but for inspiring the spirit of service in these tech-savvy students!”
In 2017, we exhibited at the State of the City Luncheon to local dignitaries and potential sponsors to exemplify advanced STEM programs in our school system; we were able to meet many school board members who were previously unaware of our team. We’ve made a strong connection with our student body through our participation in activity fairs and open houses where we’ve displayed our robot’s capabilities and team’s aesthetic. Through demonstrations at local elementary and middle schools, we ensure that there will be students joining our team in the future.
We’re very proud of our lasting impact on students. We’ve been recognized for our role in encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers by increasing the participation of female students on our team, encouraging their role in leadership positions, and providing opportunities for them to become engaged in the engineering process. Of alumni who graduated in the last 5 years, 97% of our students pursue college educations, with 83% pursuing STEM careers. In our senior exit interviews, graduating seniors report that their Triple Helix experiences award them “a glimpse into the type of job I want to have professionally, a more complete understanding of project management, friendships that I will never forget, and leadership skills to take into college and the workplace.” Students leave with “valuable relationships with mentors who work in industry” and “the confidence to pursue an engineering degree!” Perhaps most succinctly put, however, came from one alumni who said, “I learned what I wanted to do in life.”
Our team regularly quotes the phrase, “it’s not just about the robots.” This has truly been expressed in our constant zeal for spreading the values of FIRST throughout our region, in our ongoing mission to inspire others to pursue technological fields and participate in the worldwide FIRST community.