Paying It Forward

ECE Sophomore Mentors High School Robotics Team

June 4, 2019

Several students posing with bannerBATON ROUGE, LA – For the past two years, LSU Electrical & Computer Engineering sophomore James Sonnier has spent countless hours devoted to his computer engineering studies, working part-time, and mentoring the Episcopal High School Robotics team.

With his help, the team has competed in multiple FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competitions across the South, including one where the team took top honors. Sonnier not only enjoys the engineering aspect of his mentoring position, but also understands the importance of passing along his knowledge to those whose shoes he once stood in.

During his senior year of high school, Sonnier was on the Mandeville High Robotics team that competed in the FIRST World Championship in Houston. At one of his last competitions, he heard another student from Baton Rouge say that two mentors were leaving the Episcopal High School robotics team.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be at LSU next year and can come and help,’ and I ended up getting more involved than I thought I would,” Sonnier said. “Now it has transitioned into me being de facto in charge.”

Sonnier spends about 30-40 hours each week with the 15 EHS Robotics team members who make up Knight Vision, a team that has existed for eight years.

“They had a very strong group of seniors last year, so I would just show up once or twice a week and throw out the right questions and try to give good advice,” Sonnier said. “This year, it was mostly underclassmen, so my hope is that if I teach them a lot now, it will be easier their junior and senior years.”

Preparing for competition starts early in the year. During the first week of January, FIRST announces what the game will be, releases the rule manual and gives an animation of the game. The teams then have six weeks to build a robot and travel to competitions where they will play the same game.

Asked if that is a lot of time to build a robot, Sonnier chuckled, “No.”

The first few weeks are used to come up with a strategy, game analysis and prototyping. Then the robot comes together in about a week, followed by debugging code and driving practice. Knight Vision’s robot was 3-feet tall by 3-feet wide.

This year’s FIRST game theme was “A Celebration of Space, Innovation & STEM Inspiration” and involved scoring game pieces, one of which was a kickball, while the other piece was a flat, round hatch panel.

“In order to score the cargo, you had to put a hatch panel on first, score the cargo and then the hatch would hold it in from falling out,” Sonnier said.

There are more than 100 FIRST regional competitions, two of which Knight Vision competed in this year. The first competition was the Rock City Regional in Little Rock, Ark., in March and Knight Vision made it to the quarterfinals.

The FIRST Bayou Regional, which took place in New Orleans just two weeks after Rock City, saw many of the same teams compete. There, Knight Vision went on to win, allowing them to qualify for the FIRST World Championship in Houston in April. Ultimately, the team would place 50th out of 67 teams in its division.

“The teams that are winning championships have 30 professional engineer mentors, 50-60 students, a $100,000-a-year budget, and professional machine shops,” Sonnier said. “My team pays for their own travel. Money is a limiting factor. Each competition has a $5,000 entry fee and those robots aren’t cheap to build.”

Though funding can present a problem for some teams with a lower budget, Sonnier sees it as an opportunity for them to be inspired by the high-performing teams and work to increase their resources and abilities.

With the 2019 competition season now over, Sonnier plans on working with the EHS team over the summer to build custom gear boxes. He also looks forward to working full-time for LONI (Louisiana Optical Network Infrastructure), LSU’s internet service provider, where he currently works part-time during the fall and spring semesters.

“I’m looking forward to just working 40 hours a week this summer,” he said. “That will be nice. In terms of what I do for LONI, that’s the side [computer networking] that my dad was in, so I was exposed to that at a very young age. Working for LONI is a great experience. Sometimes I just work on simple stuff, like inventory and warehouse, but I’ll also help configure routers in the lab or data room.”

As for his plans beyond the summer, Sonnier will continue to study CE under LSU ECE Professor Ramachandran Vaidyanathan and also serve as a mentor for the EHS robotics team

“It’s rewarding,” he said. “All of the things that I learned in high school, I’m now teaching them.”


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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist