FIRST Robotics Competition Makes STEM Students into Superstars
Chris Jennings has an infectious enthusiasm for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), as well as a rich history with the FIRST organization. The team he currently coaches, Mechanical Mayhem 1519, includes the youngest (and final) of his seven children who have competed in FIRST Competitions. Beginning in 2004, Jennings coached a FIRST Lego League (FLL) team in which 9-14 year old students compete using Legos. At the end of that season, many of the students aged out of that program and moved into the high school level FRC program. In 2005, Mechanical Mayhem 1519 was born with Jennings as coach and he hasn’t missed a competition since..
Jennings has been an EE for over 30 years designing ASICS, Array Processors, and doing some basic design as well. He has also run a successful consulting firm and done some part-time teaching at Daniel Webster College. Jennings has worked for Altium for approximately four years.
Beyond his role as a coach, he also developed the architecture for the current Robotics Control System that was adopted in the 2009 competition which remains in use worldwide. He wrote the specs and developed the controllers with volunteer companies from the ground up. This includes wireless communication, vision processing, smart motor control, speed control, and drive-to-limit capabilities. This replaced a very simple 8-bit integer PIC based controller running at 40 Mhz. The new controller gave the teams 10X more functionality by using a 400 MHZ power PC based controller with a full 32-bit capable floating point processor with a solid-state disk-drive. These controllers are re-used year after year.
Jennings team, Mechanical Mayhem 1519, is a 501C3 non-profit entity that consists of students from as many as 10-15 cities and towns which do not have school-based teams. To raise the 30-40K annual budget required for yearly competitions, students and their parents are all required to do some fundraising. The balance of funds are provided by corporate sponsors such as BAE, Altium, and PTC. Local machinists, technical mentors, and others offer highly valuable services pro bono.
This year Mechanical Mayhem 1519 prevailed through several white-knuckle moments in regional qualifying events, and have won a coveted spot at the World Championships that will take place in St. Louis, Missouri on April 26-29th. 600 teams will compete for the title of World Champions.
Through grand scale competitions, which rival the fervor of any sporting event, FRC has successfully inspired thousands of students worldwide to pursue STEM-based careers. Pre-season, students get unrivaled hands-on experience building complex autonomous and remote-controlled robots. In 2017, the theme was SteamWorks which required teams to accomplish a series of unique engineering challenges and tasks completed by team-built robots.
When Jennings was asked why he continues to put in so much time and energy to coach FRC year after year, he replied: “It’s for two distinct reasons. Most importantly, FRC is one of the few sports in the world where all the participants have the opportunity to go pro.” Meaning that all of these students have the opportunity to pursue STEM-based careers.
“Most of all,” he concluded, “FRC is just more fun than anyone should be allowed to have!”