Kids gear up for robot contest

Aberdeen, Baltimore County students pool resources for competition entry


Though the purpose of the robot-building competition is to solve problems, a group of Aberdeen High School students had a tough one to tackle before they could even participate: They didn't have a team.

The students from Aberdeen's Science and Math Academy magnet program brought plenty of technological skill to the table. But they lacked a suitable location and the resources to make a run at the Chesapeake FIRST Regional Robotic Competition.

Enter the Park School in Baltimore County.

Likeminded students at Park, a private school in Brooklandville, invited the Aberdeen students to join their team. Throw in a pupil from Hereford Middle School in Baltimore County and a student from Loyola Blakefield in Towson, and the result was a collection of 15 young science and technology enthusiasts who have built a 100-pound robot for a regional competition next weekend in Annapolis.

"I never thought twice about joining a team at another school," said Aberdeen freshman Yuri Katrinic. "It was a chance for all of us to make new friends. We work well together as a team, right from the start, because we all shared an interest in robotics."

The team and more than 60 others from Maryland and other states will vie for a chance to advance to the national championship event in Atlanta next month.

The idea to form a multiple-school team originated when Park School junior David Schneider expressed interest in joining the competition but found only six takers among fellow students. But after receiving encouragement from the faculty, the students regrouped and came up with a plan to invite other schools. David's mother, Melissa Hollander Schneider, chipped in, too, rounding up private donations to cover the $22,000 cost of the program.

The FIRST program (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was started in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to nurture an appreciation of science and technology in young people. The program, based in Manchester, N.H., combines professionals - often parents - who serve as mentors with students to solve an engineering design problem.

One of the Aberdeen students is Stephen Albert, a 14-year-old freshman. At an early age, he built robotic inventions out of Lego bricks. When Stephen and his father, Larry, an engineer with Black & Decker, heard about the team, they signed up.

With experience leading similar projects, Larry Albert agreed to be the team coach, eager for an opportunity to promote engineering as a fun career.

The collaboration between the schools has been a good experience for the kids, Larry Albert said.

"These two schools are very different, but the kids have managed to form a cohesive team," he said.

The team - called Umbrella Corporation -began work in early January, spending about 25 hours per week after school and on weekends constructing their robot.

Their task included making a robot, an electrical system to operate it, and a method for maneuvering it. It's not a traditional-looking robot in the TV or movie sense: The team's contraption is about 2 feet tall, 3 feet wide and is square-shaped with a clear Plexiglas cover. It's designed to shoot sponge balls into rectangular goals placed on a ramp, and then roll around to collect them, David Schneider said.

For a scrimmage competition, the team shipped the robot to the National Building Museum in Washington last month. The trip jarred the robot and caused technical problems during the event.

"We brought the robot out and moved the joystick, and nothing happened," said David. "It was nerve-racking. But better to have it happen at the scrimmage than at the competition."

Eventually, the team got the robot running. Then it was back to Park to make repairs and adjustments. During that session, Scott Forster from Hereford Middle sat on the floor and worked on the robot's red and yellow wiring. Red lights blinked as a dull squeal echoed from a motor on the robot.

When the team works on the robot, the concentration level gets intense, but it pales in comparison to the scene at the scrimmage, and to what the team expects in Annapolis, Scott said.

"The room was full of people [in Washington], but we didn't panic," he said of the scrimmage. " ... We just took the robot off the floor and put our heads together and fixed it, and that's what we're going to do today."

Simplicity has been the guiding principle for the Umbrella Corporation.

"It wasn't the most high-tech robot on the floor," David said of the trial in Washington. "But the more difficult the robot, the more likely you are to have problems. But no matter what, we have a working robot, and I think we've done a great job."

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