Johnny Vargo, an industrial technology teacher at Plainfield High School, says “being a nerd is now cool.”
Vargo put together a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team at PHS only three years ago, and now they call themselves champions after winning the Indiana State FIRST Robotics Championship this past weekend at Perry Meridian High School.
“We started competing in VEX competitions around the state in 2008, and this is where we heard about For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics,” he said. “Our team has been successful because they take pride and are dedicated to the work it takes to build these complex robots.”
FIRST Robotics Competitions involve teams of high school students building robots that weigh up to 120 pounds that can complete a task, which is changed every year. They are allowed a budget, a standard set of parts, and encouraged to add to the robots as long as they conform to FIRST safety rules.
Teams are given six weeks to complete a robot that can operate autonomously as well as by wireless control to complete given tasks. The PHS squad came from being 23rd out of 24 teams to take home the title.
“I preach strategy,” Vargo said. “Teams from all around the world come to our regional. It’s unlikely that we’ll have the best robot at the competition, so our game plan is to use strategy to gain and sustain competitive advantage.”
He said the program encapsulates a range of students with a variety of educational goals, and that eclectic group is why they have so much success.
“We have students that want to become mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, programmers, and web designers,” he said. “It takes these different interests and talents to have a successful FIRST robotics team.”
But more than winning competitions now, Vargo says he hopes this new program will help students at PHS long beyond a competition or their high school years.
“They are using the skills and knowledge from this program to help with their next step of life,” he said. “I think FIRST robotics is becoming more and more popular every day. The younger generation is recognizing how important it is to be smart and they are aware that using their intelligence will pay off in the future. It’s highly unlikely that all the athletes in an athletic team will become professionals in that sport. All 30 of our young men and women on our team can be an engineer if they wanted to.”
Though the team was unable to compete for a world championship this year because one of their robots broke, they were the only robot to fully climb a pyramid — one of the tasks — and Vargo sees nothing but a bright future for the program at PHS.
“Overall, I was extremely happy with our team at the regional,” he said. “In the next five years, I hope to see us staying competitive and being a platform for our students to learn skills that will give them an advantage to succeed in the game of life.”