Friday, February 3, 2023

Laney High School student represents the face of Wilmington’s economic future

Sam Weaver, captain of the Wired Wizards.

WILMINGTON — “It was really tough, because it wasn’t what we were planning on,” said Sam Weaver, captain of the robotics competition team Wired Wizards. “But the changes we made served us well. In the end they saved us.”

Weaver was talking about the last-second design change his team made during a recent competition: a design flaw crippled the team’s robot, “Sue,” and forced the Wired Wizards to amputate one of “her” limbs. But Weaver could just as easily have been talking about Wilmington’s economic future. The Laney High School senior said he is preparing for a new economy that not a lot of people understand.

“A lot of people want to be doctors or lawyers or in real estate,” Weaver said. “Those are familiar jobs, people have heard about them. It’s kind of the easy route. But those jobs might not always be around, and we want to do something different. We want to be ready for the future.”

The Wired Wizards are a team of 25 students from around the Cape Fear area and they represent a serious investment in the future of technology jobs in Wilmington. Part of the FIRST robotics program that helped sponsor last week’s RoboCon, the team is specifically designed to train students in three major fields of the growing tech industry. For that reason, Weaver’s team structure looks a lot like the real-world businesses he hopes to work for one day, a mix of digital programming, engineering and social-media powered fundraising and public relations.

Some of Sue’s inner-workings.

Weaver’s team structure looks a lot like the real-world businesses he hopes to work for one day, a mix of digital programming, engineering and social-media powered fundraising and public relations.

“As captain, I’ve got to delegate. So I’ve got a programming team, a build team and a business development team,” he said. “Everyone kind of understands what the other teams do, but they specialize. They’re pretty dedicated, they just do what’s best for the team.”

Weaver, who has been on the team for four years, described the competition process, designed to mimic real-world challenges faced by technology companies.

“On Jan. 7 [2017], they’ll reveal the course,” he said. “FIRST robotics has a teaser trailer up now, so we know it’s steam-punk based. But until they release the video showing the course, we won’t know what our robot will have to do. It’ll air and then we’ll scramble.”

(Below: 2016’s FIRST robotics competition reveal.)

Weaver’s team will then have six weeks to design and built the robot, code its control system and raise money for expenses (this year’s budget is nearly $50,000).

“After six weeks, we have to be finished,” he said. “It’s midnight on a Tuesday, and we’ll have to put the robot in a special plastic bag and zip-tie it shut. Then it’s hands-off until the competition.”

Students do much of the hard work – including considerable fund-raising – but business leaders in the community also help.

Gage Miller, last year’s team captain, said that the team’s build area, which is too large (“and too messy,” Miller added) for TekMountain, was donated by Cameron Properties.

“It’s out on Shipyard,” said Weaver, “so we call it Shipyard Castle.”

Miller also said TekMountain had previously hosted their programming team in the co-working space perched atop the CastleBranch building.

“It was really impressive being up there, it was a very cool space – the glass windows you can write on,” Miller said. “But it was also having all those other groups up there, if you needed coding help, there was a guy doing that, if we needed a social media idea, there was someone there.”

Miller (Left) and Weaver (Right), with “Sue,” their 2016 robot. “The Ballad of Sue,” Miller said, “is a long a sad one with a happy ending. We had to amputate her shooting arm because she kept tipping over. We had to redesign the shooting system. But it worked out. Sue is tough.”

The co-working spirit Miller and Weaver experienced at TekMountain is evident in the competitions, too.

“It’s not like other sports,” Weaver said. “We totally go over to other teams and check out their gear, and they check out ours. We’ll share engineering tricks or coding ideas. It’s a community. We’re all working for the same thing, to learn the same things.

“Every one of these pins,” Weaver said as he donned a sweatshirt layered in pins, “is a gift from another team.”

Weaver said he looks forward to a career in the tech industry, considering TekMountain CEO Brett Martin to be an inspiration. Said Weaver, “I’m looking at NC State, Georgia Tech, and MIT. But what I’d really like next is a meeting with Brett [Martin].” 

Update: Weaver got his meeting with TekMountain CEO Brett Martin

(Below: Video of Sue in action.)

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