A robotic approach to science

Glenelg: A student team pours its knowledge into a mechanical creation and competes in challenges with groups from across the nation.

Education Beat

News from Howard County schools and colleges

September 04, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two years ago, when she was a sophomore at Glenelg High School, Megan Lu thought she would pursue a career in journalism. Then her algebra II teacher, Dean Sheridan, suggested she join the school robotics team.

"I just kept coming back and getting more involved, and now I'm here all the time," Lu said. As she thinks about her future, the senior said, "I'm looking at techie schools."

Though she still takes a journalism class -- "I'd like to keep my options open," she said -- Lu said she never would have discovered her interest in engineering if she had not joined the robotics team.

The goal of the team, which Sheridan formed four years ago, is to create a robot that can compete in FIRST Robotics competitions. The competitions were started in 1992 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, along with Woodie Flowers, an MIT professor, and other scientific luminaries.

The idea behind FIRST, an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is to foster student interest in science by creating challenges that are fun yet difficult.

"If people would give the same recognition and stature to kids that work with technology at this level as to kids that play football, we could save the world," Sheridan said.

More than 1,600 teams worldwide participate in the competitions, including several in Maryland, but the Glenelg team is believed to be the only one from Howard County.

The Glenelg team started as a class, but after the first year it became an after-school activity, Sheridan said.

In early January, participating teams are given "tool kits" with the engines and parts that they can use to create their robots. They are also given limits on the height and weight of the finished robot, and the amount of money they can spend on additional parts.

Six weeks later, they must have completed the assignment. From that point on, the robotics teams can compete in regional and national tournaments.

Once the challenge is announced, members of the team get together and begin bouncing ideas off one another, said Chris Leonavicius, a team member. Students sometimes stay at school until 8 or 9 at night during those intense weeks of building a robot, he said.

This year, the challenge was to create a robot that could place "tetras" made of piping onto pyramid-shaped posts. At the tournaments, the robots would compete to place the most tetras on the posts, winning extra points for getting three in a row.

On Thursday, several students on the robotics team gathered in the school auditorium to demonstrate how the robot -- named Dean -- worked. While one student operated the controls, the robot rolled on casters and wheels, then raised a metal arm and, with a small blast from a pneumatic pump, released the tetras onto the post.

Last weekend, the team placed second in a competition in Washington. The team's greatest win came in 2002, when it took first prize in the Western Michigan Regional, considered one of the nation's most challenging competitions, according to Sheridan.

Winning a regional competition automatically qualifies a team to enter a national tournament, but teams can also simply register for the national competition. Glenelg participated nationally in 2002 and 2003 but did not make the championship round either time, Sheridan said.

Of course, winning the competitions is almost beside the point. Glenelg students on the robotics team learn about all aspects of mechanics and engineering, and also learn to think strategically about the competitions. On the current robot, they learned that casters on the front worked better than wheels, for example.

About 15 to 18 students are hard-core members of the team, Sheridan said, with another 15 to 18 participating on a less serious level.

Sheridan said he likes to participate in as many as four competitions a year, but they are not cheap. Registration costs $6,000 for the first competition, and $4,000 for subsequent tournaments.

He would also like to see the club expand beyond building the robot and using it in competitions. Members of the club are known for being able to fix video equipment and other things at school, he said, so why not send them out to local nursing homes to fix wheelchairs?

All he needs is more teachers to help him, maybe a few parent volunteers and more money.

In previous years, the Glenelg team was sponsored by W.R. Grace, and this year, the county school board has offered to provide some transportation, but Sheridan is seeking additional sponsorship.

His message to potential sponsoring companies is simple: "I've got the kids you want to hire in four years," he said.

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