Add an “s” to the word “robotic,” and you advance from a state of stale emotionlessness to a branch of actively tactile technology.
Make no mistake, St. Charles North High School senior Luke Feeney sounds anything but the former when discussing the latter, especially when talking about the St. Charles-based PWNAGE #2451 robotics competition team he proudly represents.
“The fact that I learned from this program how to turn a hunk of metal into a working part on a robot, there’s a very good sense of fulfillment,” Feeney said.
Twenty-nine PWNAGE teammates from the Tri-Cities, Kaneland and other west suburban high schools and home-school programs can attest. After a recent appearance at the FIRST Robotics world championships in St. Louis in which the team was a semifinalist in its category, PWNAGE members beam about another enjoyable year.
“We do teach a lot more than just building the robot even though the team focuses around the robot,” team member Bryce Williams said. “Which sounds almost like a paradox at first, but it does work.”
Williams is a home-schooled student who lives in Glen Ellyn with his family, including his mother, Terri, a PWNAGE co-coordinator and media liaison. Terri Williams said the family relocated from California 18 months ago so her children could pursue the program, which operates out of Genesis Automation in St. Charles.
If that doesn’t sound like the ultimate endorsement, Feeney aspires to his own brand of PWNAGE promotion. He fondly recalls his gateway into the group.
PWNAGE representatives visited one of his science classes during Feeney’s freshman year at North to show students the capabilities of the robots, which must perform different competitive functions at each year’s competition. Turns out it didn’t take much to sway a teenager who had been told from a young age that he might be a fit for engineering one day.
“Honestly, ever since joining this, I want to push this program onto as many schools as possible,” Feeney said. “New life goal. The fact that we are open to everyone … it’s pretty great that the opportunity is there.”
PWNAGE accumulated numerous accolades this past season, including a championship at the FIRST Robotics Miami Valley Regional competition in Springfield, Ohio, in March. The team earned the Engineering Excellence Award at regionals, as well, rewarded for “an elegant and advantageous machine feature” – in this case a robot intake function that provided for seamless scooping of Wiffle balls and gears, which proved paramount.
The team also participated in regional competitions at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a victory, and La Crosse, Wis., before descending on nationals at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis from April 27 to 29.
Still, the venue that housed PWNAGE most often was Genesis, whose president, Scott Hale, offered hands-on tutelage alongside other mentors. The working environment reinforced the acronym of FIRST, which means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” as many members applied long hours for the six-week robot building phase. The facility was accessible for three to four hours on weeknights and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays.
“I like how open it is with what you can do on the team,” said North junior Rosie Johnson, who followed her older sister, Iris, into the program. “There’s such a wide variety of things. We work on the big mill machines, or you can do the electrical work, or we have the programmers upstairs. And if a mechanical kid wants to go work with the programmers, they can. So it’s not like you’re stuck in the role that you’re given.”
Most team members credit the experience for fostering an interest in studying robotics, engineering or computer science in college.
Although the summer component involves a smaller time commitment than building and competition season, members remain invested in PWNAGE and each another. There are opportunities to volunteer at a robotics summer camp for younger children, among other activities. “Networking,” they have learned, isn’t just computer jargon.
“Engineering, mathematics and technology, it just forms a universal language that I can talk with anybody,” Bryce Williams said. “Even if they don’t strictly know what we’re working on, they can still understand the concept.
“With this, I was able to connect with quite a few friends and a few people who I would call mentors. ... It’s definitely been a good experience.”
Meet the team
Members of the PWNAGE #2451 robotics competition team are Ally Bowgren, Jennifer Bozich, Baillie Caldwell, Claire Caldwell, Alex Caswell Jr., Josh Drexler, David Ellers, Christina Faulkner, Luke Feeney, Axel Gallegos, Justin Gallegos, Peter Garnache, Maribel Gonzalez, Brady Hare, Rosie Johnson, Nathan Kein, Noah Konters, David Kovari, Reed Krantz, Donovan McKary, Jonah Meretsky, Dan Napierkowski, Colin Oleniczak, Jackson Sokolowski, Robby Spayth, Justin Suess, Alexander Vickery, Bryce Williams, Camden Williams and Danielle Yingst.