Cover Story - May 2, 2007

RoboShops: High school robotics programs present kids with engineering, teamwork challenges

by David Boyce

If our cave-dwelling ancestors had had the time and imagination for games, ring toss might have been a natural. A few circles fashioned from flexible branches, a stick pounded into the ground and it's party time.

In any case, ring toss is still with us. It's still a simple game, but complexities may be added for more enjoyment. Try this: Build a robot that can run around and play a ring-toss-like game against other robots. Do it in six weeks.

There are rules. You buy a set of generic parts such as motors and relays. Other parts must be manufactured or scrounged. Industrial partners can help, if you can find them. The robot can weigh no more than 120 pounds and be no taller than four feet.

You will need skills in mechanics, electronics, mathematics, software programming, 3D-animation, critical and abstract thinking, thinking on your feet, and, very important, managing and working within a group. You will need a team and probably some mentors to get this done on time.

Plan on finding donors for the $30,000 or more you'll need to pay for parts, extra software, travel and fees to enter the contests and ship your robot from arena to arena. The fee for the parts kit and two contest registrations is $10,000. The final in Atlanta is another $5,000 entry fee.

If ring toss is too daunting or if you've finished your robot and have time leftover, you can equip it with a lifting ramp that allies can drive onto. A lift is worth bonus points if the robot is at least a foot off the ground.

For the contests, you'll need to brush up on joy-stick skills and bring your game face.

In a match-play contest, two teams of three remotely operated, randomly assigned robots mix it up in an enclosed arena. Teams must figure out their own and their opponents' strengths and weaknesses, then work their robots cooperatively to place 2-foot-diameter inner-tubes on horizontal poles while interrupting the other team's efforts to do the same thing.

During finals games, the teams of three are formed intentionally and stay together until a winning team emerges.

Such was the task set for high school teams around the United States and in seven other countries this year by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the Manchester, New Hampshire-based nonprofit that runs the competitions and devises a new challenge each year.

Among local high school teams participating this year were Menlo-Atherton, a combined team from Woodside and Carlmont (in Belmont), East Palo Alto High School in Menlo Park, Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, and Woodside Priory in Portola Valley.

A civilized debate

For M-A junior Alp Kutlu, the co-president of the school's robotics team, the first impression of the challenge is: "This is something impossible. You can't really accomplish this."

Alp's first impression never lasts, he says. An interior mentor takes over, a voice that says: "You know, I'm going to keep going with this."

He's in his fourth year in robotics, having gotten an early start with an eighth-grade invitation to an off-season competition. Alp and co-president Jamey Gump ran the robot brainstorming/design meetings this year and coordinated the fabrication. The team and many parents did the fundraising.

"This is something that I really like doing, something that really interests me," Alp says. "It's a really friendly environment. People really recognize the fact that people have all kinds of ideas."

Students make the decisions. It's the job of adult mentors with practical experience to raise critical questions. "They're key," Jamey says. "They're the people who teach us how to (refine) stuff so we can compete."

"Basically, at the end of two weeks of debate, we had narrowed it down to a (robotic) arm design," Alp says. In short, they focused on a machine that could handle the inner-tubes. The lift-ramp idea was set aside.

"The whole team had to decide on one design because we couldn't build six," Jamey says.

Had anyone quit? No, Alp says. Did design arguments devolve into fights? Simply not liking an idea was unacceptable, he says. You had to explain why you didn't like it. "We had a formal civilized debate."

In a workshop in M-A's Building S on a recent Saturday afternoon, enthusiasm permeated the room. "It's fun," says teammate Nick Felt. "We have a lot of great people working on the team. We see what we can build together and go to a competition."

In two regional contests this spring involving schools from around the West, M-A made the finals in San Jose with 48 teams competing. In Sacramento, they finished 14th out of 39 teams.

A sport for nerds

On the Woodside/Carlmont team, consensus did not come easily.

"It takes a tremendous amount of effort because it's such a complex machine," says team captain Andrew Thiess. The rules "constrain you" with tight dimensions and deadlines. "There are lots of ways to solve those problems, but they all have costs and benefits," he says.

The team debated whether their robot should focus on the inner-tube skill or the lifting-ramp skill, he says. "We had a huge battle ÷ over whether we wanted to try to do one them very well or do both sort of well."

Like M-A's team, they settled on an arm with a claw on the end to manipulate the inner-tubes. And they did well.

Tube-a-Saurus Rex — as the six-wheeled, one-armed contender is known — finished first in both the San Jose and Sacramento regionals, which earned them the right to go to the nationals.

"It's basically sports for nerds," Andrew says. "The founders (of FIRST) are really trying to give technology and science the same recognition that sports has. ÷ You have to work as a team and it takes everybody's participation to get the right outcome."

Winning is great and Woodside/Carlmont had a great year, but "the right outcome," Andrew says, is "making sure everybody has the technical knowledge and experience in life to get them started toward a career in science and technology."

Woodside sophomore Steve Rhodes fits that description. "I'm about completely positive I'll want to do something with engineering" in college, he says. "Through all of this, I've found that it's really enjoyable, the fact that, with your own hands, you're able to make something that does stuff ÷ and wins."

Rock stars

FIRST robotics competitions are not for wallflowers. Arenas fill with thousands of spectators, big-screen TVs capture the action, and rock music pounds from the sound system.

In the past, kids drawn to science and technology would retreat to their homes to solder a radio kit and read Popular Mechanics magazine, said chemist Bob Dubrow, the father of Carlmont High sophomore Geoff Dubrow.

Those days are gone, Mr. Dubrow says. Today, "you're working on a team. There's a whole lot of kids (and) mentors. You're on center stage. Engineering goes from an ignored thing to the equivalent of a major sport at the school," he says. "It's a great program."

Universities appear to agree. For 2007, the FIRST Web site lists scholarships totaling just over $2 million for 102 students. A total of $8 million in scholarships is available from 436 institutions, said John Marchiony, FIRST's chief marketing officer.

"I wish I had had these opportunities. It would have opened doors," says Andy Jones, a mentor for the M-A team and a senior engineer with financial sponsor Abbott Vascular, a medical research and device manufacturing firm based in San Jose.

Asked for a memorable moment this year, Mr. Jones recalled an M-A student new to welding. "Welding is not as easy at it looks," Mr. Jones says. "We had one student and he had a knack. He knew exactly what to do."

"One of the really cool things (is that) engineering, in the past, was kind of a boys' club," he adds. "A really gratifying thing was the young girls and women looking into this. It was really inspiring."

The Woodside/Carlmont team had five young women out of 22 members, a parent told the Almanac. At M-A, there were seven out of 25, said team co-president Jamey Gump.

Raising money

At Woodside/Carlmont, the team's cash flow for this year may reach $34,500, said team adviser and science teacher Arlene Kolber. The total includes $5,000 raised in the spring of 2006 and used as seed money last fall, $5,000 from the Woodside High School Foundation, and $1,500 from SRI International in Menlo Park.

DreamWorks Animation SKG, based in Glendale and Redwood City, contributed $15,000 and will be reimbursing team travel expenses up to $8,000, says company spokesman Hans Ku.

"We didn't want the financial part to get in their way," Mr. Ku says. Asked about an animation studio's relevance to robotics, Mr. Ku replied: "There is almost a one to one analogy between inventing a robot and inventing on the screen."

Software simulates the robot acting autonomously and ties everything together, he says. Mentors like DreamWorks engineer Drew Perttula of the Redwood City office helped the Woodside/Carlmont team take concept to reality.

"To be a leader in our field, we rely on creative problem solving using a good helping of math and science, imagination and innovation," he added in an e-mail. "Dreaming up a functioning robot that will solve a challenging problem in six weeks is quite similar."


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