For the second time in four years, Due West Robotics is sending a team to the FIRST Robotics world championships, where teams from more than 70 countries will compete for the title. When I wrote about the first team in 2017, I interviewed Charles Angel, who was then the mayor of Due West, over the phone. This time, I went to Due West to meet Angel and the team, see the robot, and hear their presentations about their designs.

    The idea of the robotics program in Due West was born in 2011, when Angel’s son Ethan got a LEGO Mindstorms kit for Christmas and got hooked on robotics. That summer, Angel took Ethan and some friends to a robotics camp at Clemson, where he met a couple of FIRST Robotics coaches. They encouraged him to start a team, and even though there were naysayers who said kids from Due West (population 1,247) wouldn’t be able to compete with kids from Greenville and Columbia and Charleston, he started.

    The naysayers, needless to say, were wrong. Due West Robotics fielded a state-championship team, Tornado of Ideas, in 2017, and this year, the Spartans of TOAST team came out on top of more than 300 teams in South Carolina and will head to Houston for the world championship in April.

    Each year, FIRST Robotics announces a theme for the challenge, and this year’s theme is City Shapers. For the FIRST LEGO League teams like Spartans of TOAST, here are two pieces of the challenge: one is to design a robot that can perform a series of missions that relate to the topic. All teams receive a mat with graphics printed on it so that they are all practicing the same missions and judged on identical tasks.

    The second piece is to come up with an invention that addresses a challenge related to the topic and design a prototype. The Spartans of TOAST decided to take on an outbreak of hepatitis A in the state, creating a dry hand sanitizer to kill germs that spread the disease. They call their invention the “Germ Toaster”—which led them to their team name (TOAST is also an acronym for “to obtain anything, start thinking”).

    Team member Stone Driggers explained that the stainless-steel box (which does resemble a toaster oven) has motion-activated LED lights that stand in for the germ-killing UVC lights, which will be in the working prototype. UVC lights have been used to sanitize instruments and rooms in medical settings, but their invention is unique in that it directly sanitizes the skin, Jackson Dunn told me. Team members Georgia Wojtkowski, David Clarke, and Zackery Humphrey filled in more details about the device—including the fact that the team is currently working on filing a patent on it, with guidance from physician and inventor of multiple medical devices, Dr. Jeff Deal out of Charleston, SC.

    After the Germ Toaster presentation, I got to see the robot—named Flower Power in honor of the late Dr. Woodie Flowers, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who died in October of 2019. Flowers specialized in engineering design and product development, so it is a fitting tribute.

    The robot’s performance while I was watching had some hiccups, but the team explained to me how it should have worked if all went perfectly. “So,” I asked them, “when you were at the state tournament, did it all run like clockwork?”

    There was a pause, some sheepish grins, and then someone said, “That’s a firm no. We messed up a lot.”

    Angel said, “This is your overcoming story, right?”

    Overcome they did. After the first round, the Spartans were in last place, and a couple of team members skipped lunch to try to work on what went wrong the robot. Before the second run, one of the team members said to Angel, “Mr. Charles, we could go from last place to first place right now!”

    They didn’t—they ended up 6th in the mission challenge. But the competition is judged on four criteria: the mission challenge, the invention, a presentation about the design of the robot to a panel of engineers, and another presentation about the team’s core values—which include things like team identity, working together, role delegation, and budgeting. The team excelled in those other three areas, which was enough to put them at the top of the competition.

    And now the Spartans of TOAST will take their Germ Toaster, their Flower Power robot, their can-do attitude, and all the skills they’ve learned this year to Houston to see what they can do against teams from all over the world.

    by Sharon Purvis