Fledgling robotics squad performs well

The team, from left, is Mia Manitowabi, Harmony Shawana-Bebamash, Dianne Debassige (coach), Scarlett Shogga, Gnaajwi Migwans, Connie Freeman (coach) and, kneeling in front, Mya Debassige and Aspen Debassige. 

M’CHIGEENG—A student team from Lakeview School in M’Chigeeng First Nation has returned from a provincial robotics competition in Waterloo with a special Rising Stars Judge’s Award.

“It was really surprising because we’re rookies, and we got to go compete in Waterloo, so far away,” said team member Mya Debassige.

Lakeview School’s robotics team started when coach Dianne Glasby-Debassige reached out to Chris Mara, a former colleague at Wikwemikong High School. Mr. Mara runs that school’s robotics team and he was able to provide information as to what Lakeview would need to get started.

Last June, Lakeview held a robotics day and invited Mr. Mara’s robotics team and their award-winning “Biaabco Niimoosh” robot to speak with the students. The event also included the Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) Manitoulin Metal team, headed by Alan Davy.

After some information sessions, the Lakeview team decided to enroll in the FIRST Lego League (FLL), a division of FIRST Robotics Canada. All rookie teams receive at least $500 in grant funding, but the Lakeview School team qualified for $1,500. This covered the league registration cost, Lego bricks, a mat on which they could conduct their missions, registration for the Sudbury FLL qualifying tournament and other expenses like travel and team t-shirts.

School custodian Adam Roy took the standardized specifications of an FLL competition table and built a custom surface for the team’s robots.

The robotics competition was first offered to the 14 girls in Grades 5 and 6. Eventually, this was brought down to a core team of six members: Scarlett Shogga, Harmony Panamick-Shawana, Aspen Debassige, Mya Debassige, Mia Manitowabi-Armstrong and Gnaajiwi Migwans. Their two coaches were Ms. Glasby-Debassige and Connie Freeman.

Their team name? M’Chigeeng Kwesensag #42176, which roughly translates as the M’Chigeeng Girls. The number is assigned as part of the registration process.

“They’ve been working so hard. All recesses, they stay inside and even on snow days they ask to stay longer, like when the students were sent home early the other week,” said Candace Kaiser, who travelled to the Waterloo competition to cheer on her daughter Mya.

There are three aspects to the FLL program: demonstration of the FLL core values of discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun, completing robot missions and a five-minute project presentation.

Every year, FLL chooses a new theme. This year’s theme was ‘Into Orbit,’ and the teams had to identify a human physical or social problem faced during long-term space exploration within the solar system, as well as a proposed solution.

In addition to considering the three aspects of the FLL program, M’Chigeeng Kwesensag #42176 also incorporated the Seven Grandfather Teachings in their work. The issue they chose to tackle was the possibility of depression due to space’s isolation.

“We wrote down a list of things that we thought were interesting and we wanted to do, and got down to the final two which was low reflexes and depression. Then, we just voted and picked depression,” Mya said.

Their solution came from Ms. Freeman’s therapy dog Bear that she brings into Lakeview School for the students. They decided that, rather than taking a real dog into space, they could explore a virtual reality simulation that mimicked the companionship of a real dog. Their project soon had a name—Astro-Bear—and they completed their model and got ready for the Science North Sudbury tournament.

At the tournament, the girls had to present their five-minute project overview, a four-minute robot design executive summary and take part in a task that would demonstrate the FLL core values and the Seven Grandfather Teachings.

For the second half of the day, they took part in four robot matches of two minutes and 30 seconds each, where they tried to complete as many of the 15 missions as possible with their robot, named RoboBear.

During the closing ceremony, M’Chigeeng Kwesensag #42176 got the news they had been hoping to hear: they were ranked in the top three and were one of the 40 Ontario teams that would be advancing to the provincial championship this past weekend in Waterloo.

For this bigger competition, the team received an even larger grant from FIRST Robotics Canada that covered the registration cost and travel and accommodations for the girls. There was some money left over, so a few of the parents made the trip down to cheer on their girls.

“There were a lot more people there. It was a lot more noisy and it’s scarier,” said Mya.

However, Ms. Kaiser said the initial jitters did not remain present for very long.

“It was really upbeat. They had music playing, things to do and the flow kept going. Nothing was at a standstill,” she said, adding that the FIRST principle of gracious professionalism was on display.

“The kids were racing to beat the clock, not to beat a team on the other table. Everybody was happy for everyone else.”

This competition followed much the same format as the Sudbury regional. There were 15 missions to complete using the robots, along with a presentation component.

It was a hard-fought effort, but the girls team ended up leaving the competition with a judge’s award.

“During the course of competition, the judges may encounter teams whose unique efforts, performance or dynamics merit recognition,” states the description of the judge’s awards on the FLL website.

The team specifically won the ‘Rising Star’ award, which recognizes “a team that the judges notice and expect great things from in the future.”

“We all jumped up and screamed and ran to get the award,” said Mya.

Ms. Kaiser said the opportunity to compete was significant.

“To compete at that level, it’s a big deal for them, even just for the respect they have for one another and the teamwork they put into it,” she said. “We were all proud of them from the beginning, sticking through it every day, during recess, after school and snow days. We’re so proud they made it as far as they did!”

If their initial thoughts are any indication, some of the girls in the competition have found a new passion and activity to which they might dedicate the rest of their lives.

Mya said this experience was a lot of fun and that she hopes to explore a career in automotive engineering.