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 The ThunderChickens from Utica  Community Schools, wearing green shirts, control their robot at the FIRST Robotics Competition championships at Ford Field in April.

The ThunderChickens from Utica Community Schools, wearing green shirts, control their robot at the FIRST Robotics Competition championships at Ford Field in April.

Photo by Daniel Ernst

ThunderChickens declared world champs

By: Eric Czarnik | Shelby - Utica News | Published May 6, 2019


STERLING HEIGHTS/UTICA/SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Sometimes teamwork that runs like a machine can accomplish things that metal cannot solve alone.

At the April 24-27 FIRST Robotics Competition’s championships at Ford Field in Detroit, the ThunderChickens Robotics Club from Utica Community Schools was part of an alliance of teams that were named world champions.

The alliance consisted of the ThunderChickens; Team Rembrandts, from the Netherlands; the Brighton TechnoDogs, from Brighton, Michigan; and the Vulcan Robotics team, from Pennsylvania.

Emma Fidler, the ThunderChickens’ student CEO, said this is the ThunderChickens’ third world championship win in its history — it also earned the title in 2006 and 2008.

She said the victory was a close one, and the competition was “absolutely insane.” She added that in the third and final match between the two remaining sides, the ThunderChickens’ robot was supposed to climb a platform for extra points, but it fell.

Fortunately, the ThunderChickens’ allies were able to speed over and climb to the platform for those extra points, she said.

“It honestly didn’t ever feel real,” she said. “I was so happy to even be on Ford Field after our loss last year there.”

Fidler, 18, is a Henry Ford II High School senior who also attends the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology. She said her ThunderChickens student CEO job is to basically keep the team of around 70 high school students together. Tasks include setting schedules and organizing the robot pit crew.

“My job is pretty easy because the team does work so well together,” she said.

UCS officials said many of the ThunderChickens students attend special classes in the district: at the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology; at the Utica Center for Science and Industry; and through the International Baccalaureate program.

ThunderChickens mentor and chaperone Ronald Arscheene said he remembers all the different robots at Ford Field competing to accomplish the same tasks, as well as the cooperation among teams within their respective alliances. He described the ThunderChickens’ robot as about 5 feet tall, with six wheels and an aperture that grabs balls and disks and places them in a rocketship on the field.

He said his favorite aspect of being part of the team is watching students mature through adversity.

“When the team loses, it isn’t a total disaster,” he said. “You have to come back and stay in it.”

Mike Attan, a Utica MST teacher, mentors the ThunderChickens. He said the students pick up a tremendous number of skills through the robotics team, which is run like a corporation.

“We have departments for electrical and mechanical and prototyping and PR,” he said. “There’s cooperation, and the working together with the kids is just phenomenal. … These kids start off as these shy ninth and 10th graders, to being these team leaders and managing an undertaking of this magnitude.”

Attan said he has been part of the ThunderChickens for around 21 years. He said students still learn how to use mills, lathes and bandsaws, and they also get computer-aided design training. But more and more, they are learning how to program artificial intelligence, or AI, for components like vision control systems, which let robots sense their surroundings autonomously.

“As the technology has changed, we’ve had to write new designs at times, new electric components, new mechanical components,” he said. “This competition is all about the technology. We’re using computers more, obviously, for doing the work.”

Attan said more than 3,500 teams from around the world take part in the FIRST tournament, whether at the district, state or world levels. Michigan has more than 500 of the teams, he said. He said teams get about six weeks to design and prototype their robots before a period of around six weeks of competing.

The FIRST Robotics organization that runs the tournament worldwide tries to give the events the pomp and circumstance of a sporting event, he said. He explained that the group wants to introduce robotics as a career path that is more attainable than becoming a pro basketball or football player.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“The only thing I can say about the competition is that until you’ve been to one, there’s no great way of explaining the magnitude of it,” Attan said. “Going to these competitions is like going to a Super Bowl. There are tens of thousands of kids just going wild.”

Attan added that the ThunderChickens have established relationships with local businesses that donate materials, as well as with other organizations. The robotics team thanked supporters including the Abrams Foundation, Aptiv, BAE Systems, Detronic Industries Inc., the International Automotive Oversight Bureau, Ford Motor Co. and Siemens for their support.

Attan also credited UCS with helping out with transportation and arranging substitute teachers while the mentoring teachers travel to events. Above all, he praised the students.

“The kids are the ones that make the team, and UCS has some of the greatest kids in the state of Michigan,” he said. “Without them, the team wouldn’t exist.”

Learn more about the ThunderChickens Robotics Club by visiting