Gearing up for robot contest

Team: High school students use their own skills and the guidance of experts to build a mechanical marvel.

Education Beat

News from Carroll County schools and colleges

February 27, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

It was a mad dash to the finish for the Carroll County Robotics Team, as the high school students toiled in a parent's garage last weekend in the final stretch for a competition deadline.

They had been working long hours, more intensely as time ran out, to finish their creation. They spent all day Feb. 19 tinkering with Quicksilver - a remote-controlled robot made chiefly of aluminum, steel and plastic - at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center in Westminster.

With the deadline looming and school closed for the weekend, Team Predator - this year's competition name - set up shop in Mark Eastman's garage. They worked all day Sunday and Monday.

"When that thing was running up and down our driveway, you couldn't have beat the smiles off their faces," said Eastman, vice president of the group's booster club and father of team member Matthew, 15, a sophomore at Liberty High.

Team Predator cleared its first major hurdle, shipping Quicksilver by the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to organizers of the third annual Chesapeake Regional competition. Nearly 60 teams from the Eastern seaboard, including several from Maryland, are expected at the event next month at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The event is one of 31 competitions that make up the FIRST Robotics Competition, which partners professionals and high school students to solve an engineering design problem. FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter.

The teams are given a box with the same parts to get them started at the competition's kick-off in early January, but they receive no other direction on how to design or build their robots. The teams have six weeks to design, assemble and test a robot capable of performing a specific task.

Last year, the competition drew more than 20,000 students on more than 900 teams in 27 competitions, according to the organization's Web site. Teams came from Canada, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Great Britain and almost every U.S. state.

Teams, which can enter more than one regional event, advance to win a berth at the international championship tournament April 21-23 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

This will be the second year that the Carroll robotics team has competed at the Chesapeake Regional, scheduled for March 17-19.

The Carroll County Robotics Team was formed last school year by student Chris Niznik, 15, a sophomore at Century High in Eldersburg.

Niznik, whose mother home-schooled him in Woodbine through eighth grade, had been a member of the Woodlawn Robotics Team in Baltimore County. When he began attending Carroll's public school system, he wanted to belong to a local robotics team, but none existed.

His parents, Dave and Linda Niznik, made an appeal to school officials, who agreed to let them form the group after Jamieson G. DuRette, a technology teacher at Liberty High, volunteered to be the team's faculty adviser.

The team, which is open to all of the county's seven high schools, started with four members last year. This year, the team has had up to 15 members - about 10 of whom the group described as "regulars" - with students from South Carroll High and Liberty High, both in Sykesville, as well as Century High.

Most of the students are interested in engineering careers. The team gives them hands-on experience and the chance to learn from professionals.

"We'll have ... our ideas. They'll say, `That's good, but this will make it better,'" said Justin Ray, 15, a sophomore at South Carroll High.

Rian McDonnell, an engineer with defense contractor AAI Corp. in Cockeysville, said the students come up with their own ideas and the professionals offer guidance.

"It's good to see them discover things and watch them create the robot and get it to move," said McDonnell, who is working with the team for the first time this year. "The neat part is that it's theirs. I'm not going to tell them what they need to do. They tell me what they want - it's their design."

McDonnell said the students are learning invaluable lessons about working on deadline and formulating their own designs.

"They're picking up good problem-solving skills, good decision-making skills," he said.

DuRette and parents estimate that the team needs about $1,500 per student - or about $15,000 for this year's team - to cover the expenses of building the robot and entering competitions. So far, the team has a $5,000 grant from NASA. The team's booster club, a group of about seven team parents, is feverishly trying to raise funds to get the students to the Annapolis competition.

The team placed 30th out of 60 at the Chesapeake Regional last year, Chris Niznik said.

"If we finish in the top 20 [this year], we'll be ecstatic," said DuRette. "But even if we place 60 out of 60 ... just seeing them get it together and go to this competition is great."

While some of the students dream of making it to the big competition in Atlanta, most said they are satisfied to have been a part of creating something unique.

"It's neat to design something and see it built," said Kimberly Bittler, 16, a sophomore at South Carroll High. "The best part of this was the teamwork. And it's not every day that you build a robot."

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