Bright Spots in Home Schooling

May 30, 2008  

Homeschool Robotics Team Wins World Championship

by Lee Ann Bisulca

On April 17-18, 2008, a team of seven homeschooled high schoolers swept the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) World Championship in Atlanta, Georgia, taking home a Winning Alliance Team trophy and the Amaze Award (awarded by the judges to a team whose uniqueness sets it apart from all other award categories). Team Overdrive, from Bridgewater, New Jersey, won four regional tournaments (an FTC record) during the season and racked up the two highest scores ever in the championships.

Team Overdrive
Winning robot
Above: From left, team members Bethany Shotyk, Gina Scalzo, James Wittel, Kevin Fritz, Marissa Scalzo, Tyler Moser, and David Schmidt pose with trophies they won at the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.

Left: Team Overdrive’s award-winning robot shows what it can do.

Team members Kevin Fritz, Tyler Moser, Gina Scalzo, Marissa Scalzo, David Schmidt, Bethany Shotyk, and James Wittel—with the help of founder and head coach Tom Moser and their team mentors—designed and built two robots this season. They also raised funds from corporate sponsors, presented a robotics demonstration at a children’s hospital, and won two Inspire awards and one Think Award at the regional level.

“It was amazing to win,” says James Wittel, the team’s 16-year-old photographer and one of the robot builders. “I’ve been floating on air. There aren’t many people that can say they were world champions at anything.”

James is one of the original members of the team, which grew out of a computer club formed several years ago. James, Tyler, and Kevin called themselves the Junkyard Kids because they rebuilt computers with parts gleaned from a junkyard. The group morphed into Team Overdrive after Tyler and James competed on other robotics teams and decided to form their own. Team Overdrive’s first season was 2006-07, in which they won a regional tournament and were quarterfinalists in the Atlanta championships.

Team Overdrive is a division of Teen Technology, a nonprofit educational organization formed by the students and their parents. Many of the parents use their expertise as engineers, statisticians, and programmers to serve as team mentors, and the students’ siblings help scout out competing teams at the tournaments.

After their loss in last year’s FTC championship, Team Overdrive was especially motivated to come back this year. “Basically the day the game was announced [in September 2007], we were meeting and already discussing ways of completing the game challenge,” recounts 17-year-old Tyler, the team’s main builder. Team Overdrive’s first robot of the season, MAX III, won a scrimmage and the Ohio State Championship, after which the students decided to develop a second robot, knowing that the competition would get stiffer as the season progressed. While Team Overdrive poured hours into MAX IV, MAX III went on to win the Delaware and New Jersey regionals. By then the team had already qualified for the Atlanta world championships, but they went to the New York City Championship anyway to test out MAX IV—and won.

Less than two weeks later, Team Overdrive arrived in Atlanta. “It’s an amazing feeling to stand in the middle of the Georgia Dome—something you normally only see on TV,” James says. “But when we got out there, we actually went out and lost our first match—in the world competition! We decided that a small change to the robot was in order, and it ended up solving the problem. We proceeded to win all the rounds till the final.”

Ranked third in their division, Team Overdrive was selected to be the alliance partner of the second-seeded team, Mr. T from Montville, New Jersey, for the finals. With the help of Team Overdrive’s scouting data, the two teams chose Beach Cities Robotics from Torrance, California, as their third alliance partner. It proved to be a winning combination, making each of the three teams a world champion after the final round.

“What really makes our team successful, I think, is how the team knows each other,” James comments. “We’re basically like family.” Team Overdrive’s support structure of parents and siblings is noticeable at tournaments: family members all wear bright yellow shirts. In Atlanta, 32 people—including grandparents, aunts, and uncles—showed up to cheer loudly for Team Overdrive from the stands.

“We’re learning and having fun at the same time,” adds Tyler, who hopes to enter computer science or mechanical engineering after graduating from high school. “We’re learning about real-world things like engineering and time management, how to give presentations in front of companies for fundraising, and how to work under pressure. But we’re also having fun with the other homeschooled students that are on the team.”

Another positive for the team is the amount of time they are free to devote to their science and technology interests. “There are times, especially leading up to a competition, when you’re putting in an unbelievable amount of hours,” points out Pat Fritz, whose son, Kevin, helps with the team’s computer and programming needs. “The advantage for us as homeschoolers is that we can put some of our other regular subjects on the back burner if necessary, and get back to them when our robotics schedule calms down again.”

Now that they’ve achieved their goal of winning the FTC World Championship, Team Overdrive is relaxing with a few other projects—“using up extra parts to build little robots that we’ve always wanted to build,” says James, who is interested in pursuing military research and development. The team is also applying for a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams High School Invention Grant.

And what about next year? The big decision is whether to remain in the FIRST Tech Challenge division or move up to the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC), where the robots are considerably larger, and participation is more expensive. “That will mean an enormous increase in fundraising,” says Pat. “That’s a big issue for a homeschool team.” The larger FRC playing field will also mean that Team Overdrive can’t build a complete practice field in a team member’s basement, as they have done at the FTC level.

Whatever they decide, Team Overdrive has proven they can rise to the challenge.

Want to get involved in FIRST robotics? Check out FIRST’s website.