The insider's guide to the Jerome Fisher Program at the University of Pennsylvania

Impacting the World Through Robotics

by Oliver J., M&T Class of 2016

by Oliver J., M&T Class of 2016

Round two of the semifinals, and Halestorm is on deck. Four wins under our belt so far at the match and fingers crossed for the close. The buzzer sounds and the match begins. Under autonomous control, four 18 inch square metal robots set out for the field, ours running straight to the field’s center. Soon the drivers take over and a frenzy follows, all four bots racing for points. Our team plays a magnificent defense, almost stopping the opponents from scoring any points. The buzzer sounds, and we anxiously await the scores. A few minutes later the results arrive: it’s a win! We are on to the finals!

The day is December 4, 2011. I am here at Boston University’s Challenge on the Charles robotics match with the Halestorm team from Hale Middle School. We are a rookie team with only two months of experience. We have a simple robot which is by no means impressive. But we have played brilliantly, winning most of our matches and advancing to the final round. Oh, and there is a small catch: all of the competitors other than us are high schoolers, at least four years older and with the associated advantages in intellect and (theoretically) maturity. The fact that we can even compete is remarkable.

Halestorm ended up winning that competition. We went on to place fifth in the state that year out of 45 teams, an incredible result for any new team. So how did this come to be? I founded the team at the end of my Sophomore year after two years on the high school team, during which I had risen to the upper level leadership on that team. But as the head machinist, I did not feel I was truly using my abilities. I was sure I could do more. I came up with the idea of starting a team at the local middle school to get students interested in science and tech earlier than otherwise possible. I threw caution to the wind, resigned from the high school team, and made a new start. I never predicted how incredible the results would be.

The team garnered 12 members at the first meeting. We got off to a quick start. We didn’t worry about looking at other teams’ strategies or even formal designs of our own, I just gave the kids a box of parts and set them loose. As evidenced by that first competition described above, this went pretty well. The team placed even higher the following year. The students on the team became the closest of friends. By the end of the first year I had parents coming to me saying that the team had changed the life of their child, something which still gives me chills when I think of it. These kids were oddballs, geeks, outcasts even. They all shared a love of technology, but had no way to find those who shared their passion. The team gave them not only a group they could count as lifetime friends but also an avenue of expression that fit them better than anything else they had access to.

By the end of its second year the team had grown to about 50 members in a school of less than 300. To handle the large size, the team elected to split into a club anyone could join and a competitive team which required tryouts and interviews. They recently obtained a large grant to buy a full classroom set of Lego NXT sets (Lego robots) in addition to a donation of a mobile laptop lab from the high school. It is even beginning to look like the school (a middle school keep in mind) may offer classes in robotics in the future, all from the team I started back in my sophomore year. I honestly can’t believe how successful the team has been.

This has taught me a lot about life. It has taught me that we have to be willing to take those jumps, to throw caution to the wind and dive into something new that seems interesting. You can never be sure what something you start will turn into. My decision to drop the high school robotics team and start a new team has already changed the lives of many students and now that it is being integrated into the school so tightly it will have the opportunity to touch hundreds more. That program is easily the legacy I am most proud of so far in my life, though I dearly hope I can have the opportunity to top it.

Most of all, this experience has taught me the value of changing a life. It doesn’t have to be something big. It can be a two and half hour a week robotics meeting or it can be hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise money for cancer (looking at you Matt S.!), but it is always worth it. I have gotten the grades, the great college education, the awards, and many other accomplishments. Even so, none of my successes can rival the feeling of knowing that I have had an impact on the world.

Oliver is a current M&T freshman in the Class of 2016. He studies Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics within Penn Engineering and has yet to declare his major in the Wharton School. Oliver is also involved in the Wharton Trading Group, Penn Electric Racing, and Penn Symphony Orchestra.

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