Building Robots, Building Community: Mike Ulinski Lives the Vincentian Mission

August 5, 2013

Robots get ready to rumble.

Fans cheered and lights blared as the Electric Eagles took to the field at the Edward Jones Dome. The stadium was packed with thousands of supporters, sponsors and college representatives, but this was no football game. Along with 400 other teams, the Electric Eagles had arrived in St. Louis for the annual FIRST Championship, where robust robots showcase the technical and creative acumen of high school students from around the world.

While robotics competitions naturally foreground the life-size assemblages of metal, wire and motors, “it’s not about the robot,” says Mike Ulinski (CDM MS ’06), who has mentored the Electric Eagles for seven years. “The whole concept is to get kids involved with and exposed to science and technology, and to show how fun it can be.” Designing and building a robot may be fun, but it’s also a lot of work. The process begins in early January, when FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) announces the annual “game” and provides a collection of parts to jumpstart each team. Only six weeks later, the first round of regional competitions begins.

The finals in St. Louis.

In 2013, the game entailed shooting Frisbees into a series of goals, followed by a climbing exercise, in which each robot scaled a pyramid-shaped jungle gym structure. Unsurprisingly, conquering these challenges required teamwork, perseverance and creative problem-solving. The Electric Eagles hail from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, so they’re no strangers to difficult technological problems, but the robotics project tends to be daunting. “The majority of my students have never really used power tools,” Ulinski notes. “Quite a few have never seen pneumatics, car window motors or some of our donated materials.”

The team met four times per week, including Saturdays, so the students ramped up quickly. “We actually had students teaching other students,” Ulinski says. In particular, two seniors shared their accumulated experience with the 13 other team members. “I have one student who was distracted a lot as a freshman,” Ulinski remembers. “Now, he still gets our attention, but he’s gotten so enthused with [robotics] that he’s basically learned to do computer-aided design all by himself.” These types of success stories are common in the robotics community.

Poised to begin the game.

Students gravitated toward different roles within the mechanical, electrical, programming and public relations sub-groups. For example, the latter cohort created logos and banners that were strung up in the pit area during competitions. “It actually has a NASCAR feel,” explains Ulinski. Regardless of their specific area of expertise, all students “acquire new skills as they learn how to project manage and speak in front of people.”

Last spring, after placing well in several regional competitions, the Electric Eagles were satisfied with a middle-of-the-pack finish at the FIRST Championships. Now, they’re already thinking about next year; preseason will start again in the fall. For Ulinski, who works as a staff engineer at Shure, volunteering with the Electric Eagles is an ongoing commitment and an enjoyable way to carry out the Vincentian mission of giving back. “It’s just the satisfaction of helping students,” Ulinski muses. “To see the students grow from this and see what additional possibilities [come from this]. It will be great to see what cool stuff they do in the future.”

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Members of the Electric Eagles work on their robot in the pit.

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The robot in action.