WILLIAMSTOWN — The Mechanical Mounties went from worst to almost first during their third year competing against larger, well-funded high school robotics teams.
The high-tech student squad from Mount Greylock Regional High School finished last and nearly last, respectively, in the two regional events they entered during the 2018 season of the international FIRST Robotics Competition.
Learning from their experience and mistakes, this year's team built a better a robot and developed a game-day strategy that propelled the teenagers into the playoffs in two recent 2019 regional tournaments.
The Mounties reached the finals in Waterbury, Conn., and semifinals at the Springfield event, with their robot named Mercury finishing in the top 10 in scoring among 40 high schools from Southern New England.
"This is a Cinderella team that didn't have the resources some of the other schools had," said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.
Barrett came away impressed last week after hearing how the Mounties overcame limited resources and only having 15 members compared to some teams with up to 100 students and 25 years of robotics experience.
"They learned from last year's experience and the tough competition they faced," he said.
The Mounties were demonstrating to Barrett the need for pending statewide funding that would allow all high schools, especially rural ones, to financially participate in the FIRST competition. The Mount Greylock students this school year raised $15,000 in corporate sponsorships, private grants and other donations to cover expenses such as a $5,000 entrance fee for the two events, travel and other costs.
Lacking a proper test facility for Mercury, the team hauled the robot to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y..
"Being able to got to the RPI [robotics] practice field saved us a lot of headaches at our first competition," said junior Brandon Fahlenkamp.
Recruiting additional students would also increase the team's efficiency in preparing for events.
"While we have some people working on the robot, we can have others building a practice field," said freshman Anthony Welch.
Money and team size aside, the Mounties realized after their poor showing last year, they needed to develop a better approach to competing against larger, more experienced teams.
"A lot of what they learned was to come up with a good strategy for scoring points with the robot and stick with it," said Daniel Louis, a Mount Greylock teacher and one of four adult team mentors.
Despite the vast improvement, the Mounties fell short of qualifying for the regional competition, the next level before the world championship held in Detroit last month.
The team will only lose one student to graduation this year, giving them the confidence they can advance further in 2020.
The Mounties expect to rely on experience, knowledge gained and whatever resources at their disposal.
"Take what you have and make the best of it," Welch said.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-6233.