Triple Helix featured in Jefferson Lab news

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) featured the following news story:

ROBOTICS TEAM TRANSFORMS STEM INTO A SPORT

Jefferson Lab’s Nate Laverdure volunteers as the head coach of Triple Helix, a high school robotics team shooting to success this year

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Excitement fills the air on game day for Triple Helix Robotics, a team of about 12 students and their seven adult mentors headquartered at Menchville High School in Newport News, VA.

“The energy is enormous,” said Nate Laverdure, who volunteers as head coach of the team year-round in addition to working as a cryogenics mechanical engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.  

A day of matches lies ahead, but it’s not the team members that will be on the field. Instead, the students will control a robot they spent the last three months designing, building and testing. 

These matches are part of the FIRST Robotics Competition, a worldwide league that releases a new game in January of each year before its competitive events begin in March.  

“All these teams have been working hard in their shops, solving these problems and figuring out how to play a game that nobody has ever played before. They are super excited to bring their solution and see how it does in competition,” Laverdure said. “It’s thrilling.”

Like many sports, the games that FIRST comes up with typically involve shooting balls into a goal for points. (But sometimes they entail throwing frisbees or hanging inflatable tubes on pegs.) For the 2022 game, the robots must pick up and shoot oversized tennis balls. Each match is a two-and-a-half-minute scramble to get as many balls as possible of their team’s color into a central goal. There are two alliances, red and blue, with three robots to each alliance. At the end, the robots climb as high as they can up ascending monkey bars to earn extra points.

The robot Triple Helix created for this year’s game is excelling. During matches, it zooms around, sucking balls off the floor and shooting them into the air like a pitching machine.

“Our robot is kind of blowing people out of the water,” Laverdure said. “I think it’s because we were able to design a fairly simple solution.”

The team designed and built their robot within a few weeks after the game was announced. They attribute their success to all the practice they’ve packed in since then.

“We have truly found world-class performance this year,” Laverdure said. “If you look at the stats in different directions, we’re pretty much in the top 15 of 3,700 teams worldwide right now.”

Triple Helix’s robot is so good, the team qualified for the FIRST Chesapeake District Championship, where they joined 60 of the top teams from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC to play the same game. Triple Helix won the 3-day event alongside alliance partners the RoboBees from Hollywood, Maryland, and the Warbots from Vienna, Virginia.

Before their last competition of the regular season, Triple Helix made some upgrades.

“We believe in the iterative engineering design process, so we’re going back and looking at our hypotheses and changing our solution and seeing if that improves our robot,” Laverdure said.

This same iterative design process drew Laverdure to Jefferson Lab after he earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Old Dominion University. Unlike most industry jobs, his work on cryogenic refrigerators at the lab allows him to cover the entire engineering life cycle, from conception to design, implementation and operation.

“I like using feedback from each step to make better and better solutions,” he said.

He instills this same process in Triple Helix members. Laverdure wanted to volunteer with a youth robotics team after graduating from college, because he participated in the FIRST program when he was in high school. His favorite part is watching the students grow—both in their technical abilities and as people.

“I wanted to design and build cool robots with high school kids,” he said. “It’s also really fulfilling when our students and mentors come together to tackle these crazy problems that, initially, nobody knows how to solve.”

Running the team has also taught him about project management and allows him to do the type of hands-on work he doesn’t get to do at the lab.

“I don’t even know where the closest wrench is here,” he said.

Laverdure is not the only one at Jefferson Lab who helps with a youth robotics team: More than a dozen others around the laboratory have volunteered with teams like Triple Helix.  

Triple Helix was supported by the JSA Initiatives Fund from fiscal years 2016 through 2020. Team members have participated in Jefferson Lab’s mentoring and internship programs, and some have even gone on to work at the lab.

Will Sapp, a former Triple Helix team member who is now a mechanical designer at Jefferson Lab, said some of his most memorable moments in high school were with the robotics team.

“Everyone was very diverse in experiences and backgrounds, yet with our common goal, we were able to make it to the world championship with our robot Genome Theta in 2016,” he said. Sapp worked under Laverdure’s guidance while on the team.  

“Nate played an instrumental role in guiding the team,” Sapp said. “It was and is clear that the students’ learning was a high priority for him.”

According to Sapp, Laverdure gave the students full creative freedom, but he was always available when questions arose. He said the team helped cement his career path.  

“It was actually because of my time on the team that made me think to apply here at the lab,” Sapp said.

He said skills he honed on the team, including machining, mechanical assembly, design, programming and electrical, “matched up perfectly with my degree in mechanical engineering technologies and propelled me into the field with confidence.”

Ultimately, getting students interested in STEM is what youth robotics teams are all about.

“We want to raise the profile of STEM as a potential career choice, as something these kids are excited by,” said Laverdure. “And the trick that we’re playing is that we’re making STEM into a sport. It’s not quite ready for prime time, but it’s thrilling in person.”

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be tuning in.

Further Reading (Videos):
Triple Helix’s 2022 robot reveal 
Field-side footage of a match 
An explainer of the FIRST Robotics Competition

By Chris Patrick

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, kcarter@jlab.org

Triple Helix featured in Menchville HS student newspaper The Lion’s Roar

A feature article by student reporter — and new Triple Helix teammate! — Danae L appeared in The Lion’s Roar, the student newspaper of Menchville High School.

Danae Ludy, Staff Writer
April 27, 2022

While Menchville is known for its marching band, basketball team, and football team, I would like to shine the spotlight on the unsung champions of Menchville, the Triple Helix Robotics team.

Located in the back of Menchville’s Tech building, the Triple Helix workshop is outfitted with the most professional-grade equipment needed to fabricate an effective FIRST Robotics Competition robot. Students work alongside experienced mentors to develop valuable skills on this equipment. This equipment includes precision metal machining equipment including a 6×26″ manual mill with DRO and a 9×29″ manual lathe, an 80 watt CNC laser cutter designed and built by Triple Helix, and multiple 3D printers.

I had the chance to attend one of their meetings, and it was an experience I will never forget. The atmosphere was filled with creativity and inspiration, and the connection within the team among the students and mentors was astonishing. I got to experience first-hand what it’s like being a part of the team, including playing with the robot and learning how to mold two wires by soldering them. Solder, commonly misspelled as Sauter, is a fusible metal alloy used to create a permanent bond between metal workpieces. The solder is melted to adhere to and connect the pieces after cooling, which requires an alloy suitable for use as the solder has a lower melting point than the pieces being joined. I was also able to explore the workshop while seeing the team in action as they worked on repairs for their award-winning robot.

Although they have the same basic program foundation for actions like driving, each robot is uniquely catered to the challenge of each year that is announced on the kickoff day in January. The competitions take place throughout March and April. This year’s topic was Rapid React where two teams of three groups compete head-to-head to score their cargo balls into the lower and upper hub. They earn additional points if their robots traverse — travel across or through — the rungs of their hangar.

Triple Helix has a team of several mentors that is composed of Bill Bretton, Don Brunk, Cameron Caldwell, Todd Ferrante, Chris Garrity, Jasen Jacobsen, Amy Nichols, and the head coach, Nate Laverdure. According to Ferrante the “mentor philosophy” to teaching the right way has four steps. “I do, you watch. I do, you help. You do, I help. You do, I watch.”

The team includes students from Menchville, York High, Warwick High, Tabb High, Poquoson High, and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and School.  The innovative and inventive Triple Helix robotics team is one of the best teams in the DMV (Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area.

According to their webpage, the “Triple Helix is the competitive robotics team of Menchville High School in Newport News, Virginia. They compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition as Team 2363.” Triple Helix was founded in September 2007 by its founding partner, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, to expand student access to scientific and technical education at Menchville. The team also represents one of its other well-known partners, the NASA Langley Research Center. As said by the team themselves, “A commitment to excellence is ‘in our genes!’”

Although the workshop is at Menchville, the designs are tested at the STEM Gym. Located at 11516 Jefferson Ave #2 and founded by the Intentional Innovation Foundation, the Peninsula STEM Gym is a place for student robotics teams to develop competition robots and have real-world engineering experiences that will inspire a lifelong interest in science and math. The STEM Gym features a 75% FRC practice field, a complete official FIRST Tech Challenge field sponsored by Newport News Shipbuilding, and a meeting space for 20.

If you’re interested in joining or seeing the team in action, you can message the team at contact@team2363.org, swing by any of the meetings as posted on calendar.team2363.org to meet the team and learn how you can get involved, and come out to STEM Day on May 21st at Christopher Newport University.

If you want to learn more, you can visit their website at team2363.org.

Beyond Chairman’s: teaming up to build assistive tech

People with disabilities are often challenged to resume the activities of their everyday lives. Assistive technology (AT) helps people resume independent participation, however commercial devices are often expensive and unsuited for individual use. Occupational Therapists (OT) increase client access to AT, but may lack skills, material and equipment needed to make individualized solutions. In this presentation, we discuss the collaboration between our FIRST team and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Occupational Therapy program and present a model for establishing similarly unique and mutually advantageous partnerships to increase the skills of health practitioners, introduce real-world application opportunities to STEM students, and address community AT needs.

Video presentation

Accessible archery

This spring, Triple Helix once again partnered with a Virginia Commonwealth University occupational therapy doctoral student to develop assistive devices for people in the Hampton Roads region. The team created this accessible bow mount for Camp Bruce McCoy, a residential summer camp for adults with a brain injury in Chesapeake, Virginia.  This device will enable single-arm operation of a recurve bow which will be mounted in the shooting gallery at the camp.  The team provided both right-handed and left-handed versions of the bow mount to the camp.

The bow mount is fabricated from laminated sheets of 1/4″ clear polycarbonate.  Triple Helix cuts this material on our 80-watt laser cutter, but these parts can alternatively be fabricated with more common shop tools (e.g. jigsaw, hand drill).  The bow mount enables the user to aim the bow in both the azimuth and elevation directions before shooting an arrow.  The bow can be installed at any height, enabling archery practice for both standing and seated users.

STEP file

Accessible controls for ride-on toy car

This spring, Triple Helix partnered with an occupational therapy doctoral student from Virginia Commonwealth University to develop assistive devices for people in the Hampton Roads region. Through communication with the Children’s Assistive Technology Service (CATS) a need was identified for a modified ride-on toy car, based on the University of Delaware’s GoBabyGo project. This project aims to provide access to low-cost mobility devices for young children without other means of exploring their environment. In this case, the recipient was a young girl who does not have the ability to move her lower extremities as a result of a birth defect.

To provide access to the car’s controls, a 5-inch switch was mounted on the steering column and wired via a relay switch to the car’s motor to replace the foot pedal function. Additionally, PVC handles were added on each side of the center switch for more ergonomic steering control. To also allow for simultaneous propulsion and steering, the handles fit over a laser-cut Lexan frame which, when flexed, activate an additional limit switch on each side of the steering column. This design concept can be applied to other ride-on cars, depending on a particular child’s needs and functional abilities.

STEP file

Destination Deep Space Spectator’s Guide

One of the topics which has come up repeatedly in 2363’s after-competition lessons learned meetings is how confusing it is for non-FIRSTers to attend FRC events. Triple Helix has produced a simple tri-fold brochure that can be handed to your non-FIRSTer visitors, team parents, grandparents, sponsors, etc. It doesn’t answer every question they will have. But, hopefully you will get fewer “I had no idea what was happening” comments from your visitors.

One side has general info that’s common to all FRC events. The other side has game specific info. Feel free to print these up, hand them out, and make FRC events more enjoyable for your guests.

Spectator’s Guide

Chief Delphi discussion