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Nicholas Berryman on forging a robotics career

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Currently completing his computer science degree, Nicholas Berryman looks to be headed for a career in computers and robotics, a trajectory that began in high school. Involvement with the FRC Robotics Competition both informed his career choices and helped to clarify a pathway.

The competition has seen Berryman visit the US and his passion for robotics has led him back to high school as a mentor for others who share his interest in the field.

How did you get involved with the schools?

I got involved in FRC (First Robotics Competition) as a student after the previous crop of mentors came to my high school (Willetton SHS), and since then I've been involved as much as I can, as a student for three years and as a mentor for the last two. I also got a chance to meet people involved in the school pathways program as they were a major sponsor for our teams, and through that I was given the opportunity to help spread STEM and robotics in particular to local public schools.

What was your role when it comes to working with the high school students?

I was one of the volunteer mentors, and although I helped out in different parts of the program at different times, being a computer science student I mainly focused on the software/electronics side. A big part of what I did was taking what I learned in university as recently as that week and then passing on that knowledge, as it applied to the program, to the students.

If you had any advice for your younger self who was in school, what would you say to him?

I think I would say to be confident with what I don't know. I remember when I first started FRC I had never done anything like it, and was afraid to really get involved in some areas because I didn't feel that I knew what I was doing, but when I was a little bit older and more experienced in it I began to much more actively seek out parts of the robot or build process I didn't understand and that allowed me to learn so much more than I had before. I think FRC was really where I learned this, but since then it has been something I try to apply to all aspects of my life.

What’s next for you? What are your ambitions?

Currently I'm just trying to get through my bachelors study, and really use it as an opportunity to learn as much as I can. After that I'd like to complete some post-graduate study and ultimately end up combining my passions in biology and computer science in doing bioinformatics research, although that's a ways off yet.

What was your role?

I was one the volunteer mentors for two Perth-based teams – '5663 Ground Control', and '5333 Can't C#', although I spent most of my time with team 5663. Within this role, I primarily helped the students with electronics and software, particularly in introducing mathematical sensor feedback models to them. I also helped during the prototyping phase, where I worked with students to work out novel solutions to allow us to use our limited resources to create effective, useful prototypes on or before schedule.

What do you owe your success at the South Pacific Regional FRC robotics championship to?

I would say our success came from the strong dedication of the students to learning from each other and the mentors. As a part of this, a lot of time was spent looking at our past successes and failures and determining exactly what made us successful or not, and how we should adapt this year.

What was their objective/tasks and what was the outcome? How did your team do?

This year's challenge involved building a robot to pick up cubes from various locations on the playing field and placing them onto a 'see-sawing' platform 6 feet from the ground. Our team's design revolved around picking up cubes using a claw powered by compressed air, lifting the cube using a complex system of pulleys, moving around the field quickly and efficiently using a shifting gearbox, and automating as much of this process as possible using software based sensor feedback systems. This design was successfully realised through our use of the rapid prototyping-based 'AGILE' development methodology.

What are some of the amazing things that these robots are capable of?

The most impressive of these robots are able to do things such as shooting the 1 foot-long cubes upwards of 10 feet into the air, or extending from 4 feet to 10 feet in less than a half of a second. Many robots are also able to autonomously complete these actions with extreme accuracy and consistency.

What were the highlights of the experience?

The biggest highlight by far was getting to interact with teams from all over the world and discussing how we each approached the problem and learning from each other in the process. This competition lets you see hundreds of unique solutions to the same problem, and this is not something that you can do in many other situations.

What course/units are you doing and how does this relate to your degree?

I'm currently completing a degree in computer science, and many of the methodologies we use in FRC are things I learn about in my units. In one of my units I'm learning about 'AGILE development', which we used to great success this season, and in another I'm learning about Object oriented programming, which was the key to our successful automation. These are just two examples, but there are countless cases where I have done something in FRC only to have a lecture on it a few weeks later.

What did you and your team get out of it and what did you learn?

In addition to gaining valuable engineering knowledge and skills, I'm sure many of the students have gained a real appreciation for STEM and will go on to study it in the future. Furthermore, I feel we've all gained some universal enterprise skills like teamwork, project management, working to a specification, and many others.

What does this mean for the students?

One of the biggest aims of FRC is to inspire a new generation of kids to study STEM. Our success has really achieved this, in my opinion, and with the strength of its STEM programs, I feel Murdoch may be a strong consideration for many of these students and their newfound expertise. Additionally, I have recently been speaking to various people within Murdoch about getting more involved in the program, really cementing these benefits for not only future students, but the student and staff mentors.

Do you have anything else to add?

I've been looking toward getting Murdoch more directly involved in this competition, and as part of this, I have been working to start a new Competition Robotics Club. This Club is going to need to need mentors, and I'd love for any interested students from any part of the university to contact us.

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