Robotics Team Transforms STEM into a Sport

  • Triple Helix robot
  • Triple Helix robot with students adjusting
  • Triple Helix Team Winners
  • Nate Laverdure assists students with the robot

Jefferson Lab’s Nate Laverdure volunteers as the head coach of Triple Helix, a high school robotics team shooting to success this year

NEWPORT NEWS, VA Excitement fills the air on game day for Triple Helix Robotics, a team of about 12 students and their seven adult mentors headquartered at Menchville High School in Newport News, VA.

“The energy is enormous,” said Nate Laverdure, who volunteers as head coach of the team year-round in addition to working as a cryogenics mechanical engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.  

A day of matches lies ahead, but it’s not the team members that will be on the field. Instead, the students will control a robot they spent the last three months designing, building and testing. 

These matches are part of the FIRST Robotics Competition, a worldwide league that releases a new game in January of each year before its competitive events begin in March.  

“All these teams have been working hard in their shops, solving these problems and figuring out how to play a game that nobody has ever played before. They are super excited to bring their solution and see how it does in competition,” Laverdure said. “It’s thrilling.”

Like many sports, the games that FIRST comes up with typically involve shooting balls into a goal for points. (But sometimes they entail throwing frisbees or hanging inflatable tubes on pegs.) For the 2022 game, the robots must pick up and shoot oversized tennis balls. Each match is a two-and-a-half-minute scramble to get as many balls as possible of their team’s color into a central goal. There are two alliances, red and blue, with three robots to each alliance. At the end, the robots climb as high as they can up ascending monkey bars to earn extra points.

The robot Triple Helix created for this year’s game is excelling. During matches, it zooms around, sucking balls off the floor and shooting them into the air like a pitching machine.

“Our robot is kind of blowing people out of the water,” Laverdure said. “I think it’s because we were able to design a fairly simple solution.”

The team designed and built their robot within a few weeks after the game was announced. They attribute their success to all the practice they’ve packed in since then.

“We have truly found world-class performance this year,” Laverdure said. “If you look at the stats in different directions, we’re pretty much in the top 15 of 3,700 teams worldwide right now.”

Triple Helix’s robot is so good, the team qualified for the FIRST Chesapeake District Championship, where they joined 60 of the top teams from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC to play the same game. Triple Helix won the 3-day event alongside alliance partners the RoboBees from Hollywood, Maryland, and the Warbots from Vienna, Virginia.

Before their last competition of the regular season, Triple Helix made some upgrades.

“We believe in the iterative engineering design process, so we’re going back and looking at our hypotheses and changing our solution and seeing if that improves our robot,” Laverdure said.

This same iterative design process drew Laverdure to Jefferson Lab after he earned his bachelor's in mechanical engineering at Old Dominion University. Unlike most industry jobs, his work on cryogenic refrigerators at the lab allows him to cover the entire engineering life cycle, from conception to design, implementation and operation.

“I like using feedback from each step to make better and better solutions,” he said.

He instills this same process in Triple Helix members. Laverdure wanted to volunteer with a youth robotics team after graduating from college, because he participated in the FIRST program when he was in high school. His favorite part is watching the students grow—both in their technical abilities and as people.

“I wanted to design and build cool robots with high school kids,” he said. “It’s also really fulfilling when our students and mentors come together to tackle these crazy problems that, initially, nobody knows how to solve.”

Running the team has also taught him about project management and allows him to do the type of hands-on work he doesn’t get to do at the lab.

“I don’t even know where the closest wrench is here,” he said.

Laverdure is not the only one at Jefferson Lab who helps with a youth robotics team: More than a dozen others around the laboratory have volunteered with teams like Triple Helix.  

Triple Helix was supported by the JSA Initiatives Fund from fiscal years 2016 through 2020. Team members have participated in Jefferson Lab’s mentoring and internship programs, and some have even gone on to work at the lab.

Will Sapp, a former Triple Helix team member who is now a mechanical designer at Jefferson Lab, said some of his most memorable moments in high school were with the robotics team.

“Everyone was very diverse in experiences and backgrounds, yet with our common goal, we were able to make it to the world championship with our robot Genome Theta in 2016,” he said. Sapp worked under Laverdure’s guidance while on the team.  

“Nate played an instrumental role in guiding the team,” Sapp said. “It was and is clear that the students’ learning was a high priority for him.”

According to Sapp, Laverdure gave the students full creative freedom, but he was always available when questions arose. He said the team helped cement his career path.  

“It was actually because of my time on the team that made me think to apply here at the lab,” Sapp said.

He said skills he honed on the team, including machining, mechanical assembly, design, programming and electrical, “matched up perfectly with my degree in mechanical engineering technologies and propelled me into the field with confidence.”

Ultimately, getting students interested in STEM is what youth robotics teams are all about.

“We want to raise the profile of STEM as a potential career choice, as something these kids are excited by,” said Laverdure. “And the trick that we’re playing is that we’re making STEM into a sport. It’s not quite ready for prime time, but it’s thrilling in person.”

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be tuning in.

Further Reading (Videos):
Triple Helix’s 2022 robot reveal 
Field-side footage of a match 
An explainer of the FIRST Robotics Competition

By Chris Patrick

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, kcarter@jlab.org

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.