Carroll County students have high hopes for robot in area contest

Rookie club builds 5-foot-tall entry for event at Naval Academy today

March 18, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

For years, Chris Niznik filled his room with Transformers, Legos and other toys he could take apart and put back together. As a home-schooled middle school pupil, he worked with a robotics-building team at Woodlawn High School.

This year, the Century High freshman prodded his school system to start a robotics club. The results of the club's rookie effort - a 5-foot-tall robot named Alpha One - will be entered today in a regional competition at the Naval Academy that leads to NASA's national robotics contest.

"I've always really enjoyed putting stuff together and being able to say I made that," said Chris, 14. "I knew there was a bunch of other kids who like doing stuff on computers and working with their hands, so I thought it would be really fun to start a robotics club."

Of his team's chances in Annapolis, Chris said, "I think we're going to do really good. We've got a nice team and a really good robot."

The annual contest, called the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition - began 10 years ago with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gym. This year, the competition has attracted more than 20,000 students on 935 teams registered for 26 regional events.

The winners will compete in a championship April 15-17 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where more than 7,000 students are expected to participate.

With the guidance of Jamieson G. DuRette, a technology education teacher at Eldersburg's Liberty High School, the Carroll County team spent many late nights designing and building the robot entry.

Each team begins with an identical kit of parts but must write its own software to create a mobile robot capable of performing a specific set of tasks. Because robots vie with one another at competitions, the robot-making teams must build offensive and defensive capabilities into their designs.

In this year's contests, the robots will be judged on their abilities to maneuver around the playing area, herd and pick up balls of different sizes and then drag toward their teams a mobile goal into which team members must shoot the smaller balls. For an extra 50 points, the robots, which cannot be more than 5 feet tall, will be expected to hang from a 10-foot pull-up bar.

Each match will take about two minutes.

"I'm just impressed with these guys putting this robot together in such a short amount of time," DuRette said. "If we can safely control the robot ... and it stays in one piece, I will consider it a success whether we go to championship round or not."

DuRette and Chris's mother, Linda Niznik, emphasized that the project is a product of the team, which includes students from Century, Westminster and Liberty high schools.

"This was not one of those teams where you had 16 engineers and parents doing all the work," Linda Niznik said. "These kids did this themselves."

While Chris took the lead on designing the propulsion system and creating a claw that will handle the balls and mobile goal, Steve Engler of Liberty High served as the team's lead computer programmer. Mike Prushinski of Liberty High handled most of the electronics, and Tom Russell, also of Liberty, pitched in wherever needed.

Five other students, from Liberty and Westminster high schools, rounded out the team.

The FIRST Robotics Chesapeake Regional will be held today, tomorrow and Saturday at the Naval Academy's Halsey Field House in Annapolis.

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