MSET maintains schedule despite quarantine restrictions

September 25, 2020 — by Nidhi Mathihalli

Despite facing difficulties in collaboration, the robotics team runs traditional events to make this year as normal as possible for team members.

“So those are the basics of using Git,” said senior Colin Li, the lead software design for the FRC robotics team. “Does anyone have any questions?” 

No one answered. 

For the past couple of weeks of MSET meetings, Li has sometimes felt as though he has been talking to himself during weekly Zoom meetings.

Typically, MSET, which stands for Mechanical Science and Engineering Team, brings students together to compete in FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition. During these challenges, teams build robots and code them to compete in these challenges which have different objectives and games every year. Although last year’s tournaments were canceled due to the rise of COVID cases, the FIRST competition hopes to continue this year with physical games, and released their FTC challenge for this year on. 

During the last couple of years, MSET has become one of the top robotics clubs, even making it to national competitions in both FRC and FTC, winning prestigious awards.

This year, they are facing a range of problems because of the quarantine situation.

For one, the online environment has made communicating with other members of the team much more difficult. 

“Most of the time, people have their cameras off and feel reserved and hesitant about asking questions,” Li said. 

This is evident in training sessions, where team members learn about topics that will be used throughout the year. Some of the most important training, such as how to use hand tools, have happened online with a quiz at the end with students who have not used tools like screwdrivers becoming certified in using these tools. The MSET team mentors and leads are trying to fix this issue by having small groups of people try using these tools in the future.

Additionally, this year, the number of members in training sessions has increased, going from around six or seven members at trainings to more than 25, making it hard to give individual attention to each member.

Aside from these training sessions, the club is also conducting team bonding activities, outreach and introduction events for newer members. But the online environment has continued to make it difficult.

“A lot of robotics is about collaboration and working together, which is being greatly impacted due to this situation,” said the team’s president, senior Riya Jain.

The lack of student interaction is especially impactful on some of the newer members, since many have not met any of the other members in person.

“Although icebreakers and breakout rooms help, it is still a lot harder to get to know everyone else just by listening to people talk,” freshman Vidur Sanghi said. “Team bonding is really hard in online meetings.”

Another challenge MSET has faced is outreach — usual activities like teaching at the library and volunteering at robotics tournaments are not allowed right now. Typically, each of the 120 members of MSET is required to participate in at least eight hours of outreach per year. 

This year, they hope to maintain their long-standing outreach program, and this past summer, conducted a virtual summer program at Argonaut Elementary. They plan to continue these efforts and expand to other parts of the community.

A more immediate impact is the inability to work together on hardware in person. The FIRST Robotics Competition starts in January, and their plans for putting their robot together are uncertain. 

However, the FIRST Tech Challenge has already started, and still calls for physical robots to be built. Since they are currently not working together with other people, they are prioritizing computer-aided designs, also known as CAD. CAD is something they can easily work on remotely while having the same level of collaboration on design.

CAD enables the team to machine and translate their design into physical parts, which allows them to minimize the time they spend building in person.

While FTC hardware members are working on CAD at home, the team is still in the process of deciding when the FTC teams can start meeting to build the robot. Previously, the members would meet and work on the robot after school; now, they hope to meet in groups of two or three people at the school. 

“We are making sure to follow safety precautions,” Jain said. “Even if we do plan to meet in small groups for hardware, we are going to make sure that everything gets thoroughly cleaned before being used by the members.”

Even though this year is a whole new world, MSET is trying to give their members a somewhat normal experience and provide similar training, meetings and other opportunities that they would have in previous years.

“It’s very different from what we have done before,” Li said. “But overall, everyone on the team is trying to make this year possible, and despite the situation, I’m having a great time.”

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