DAHLGREN, Va. –
Cassandra Robison has turned a passion for technology into a rewarding career at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), but that vocation was still a long way off back in 2008, when a teacher walked into her high school programming class with an opportunity to build robots. “None of us knew what we were getting into,” Robison said in a recent interview, but one thing quickly led to another. By the end of senior year, Robison’s teammates were driving from Niceville, Florida to their FIRST Robotics Competition regional event in New Orleans. FIRST, an abbreviation of “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is a not-for-profit organization that helps students around the world build industrial-sized robots that face off in competitive events.
“It was the same energy level as professional sports,” Robison remembered, sharing memories of an announcer, live video stream, and cheering onlookers. It was a jarring surprise because the team had brought what now appeared to be a barely functioning robot. All the major components were jury-rigged together, from the PVC pipe pneumatics to the homemade power distribution board. According to event judges, their machine was not safe or even competition legal. The first of three game days was spent hurriedly rewiring the robot from the ground up, with the help of opposing teams that lent tools, technical advice and encouragement. Over the next two days, a revamped robot was able to join the competition. Robison and teammates were named Rookie All-Stars that year, but she says that the spirit of collaboration, rather than competitive achievement, made the lasting impression.
Now more than a decade later, Robison is still involved with FIRST Robotics, albeit as a seasoned mentor rather than a first-time participant. In April, she watched over video as mentees from the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School competed at a regional event with a robot the size of a bumper car that can shoot baskets and perform other mechanical acrobatics.
Robison has been involved with FIRST Robotics in various mentorship capacities for more than a decade, serving as an in-person mentor for public, private and homeschool students in the Fredericksburg area, while also volunteering at FIRST events across the National Capital Region. Over the last year of pandemic social distancing, the pivot toward all-things teleconferencing provided an opening to connect with FIRST teams further afield, including the Floridians from P.K. Yonge.
The team, nicknamed Roaring Riptide, convened in small groups within a local makerspace provided by the University of Florida, with Robison providing support over regular video conference check-ins. “It represents a lot more than just a robot for the team,” Robison said, noting that the competition teaches practical skills that range from science to business and community engagement. “You’ve got mechanical, engineering, software engineering and electrical engineering. But you also have on the flip side things like building a business plan, maintaining a schedule and maintaining a budget.”
Now that official events have concluded for the year, mentors and teams will keep busy through the offseason by improving their robots and engaging younger students in the same collaborative spirit that made such an impression on high-school-aged Robison.
Robison’s work with students in the FIRST Robotics Competition earned her recognition at NSWCDD as a 2020-2021 Distinguished Community Service awardee. The award recognizes individuals that embody the spirit of dedication, creativity, and enthusiastic leadership in the community. Robison is one of 402 people, including 36 team and 105 individual awardees recognized in the NSWCDD Honorary Awards Ceremony held via video of portraits and team photos.