With student-made robots, fun comes automatically

Tourney provides lessons in engineering, teamwork


For a while, it looked as if Pedro might not get a shot off for the second game in a row.

Rammed and pushed out of position over and over again, he seemed to focus more on defense and blocking shots. Everyone knew he could shoot well, and that he was fast, but no one knew when he would have the right chance.

And then it happened: Near the end of the last period of the game, Pedro finally broke free, moved to the basket and shot. He scored.

His fans - 27 of them from South River High School in Edgewater - stood and cheered. It was his first basket.

March madness made its way to the U.S. Naval Academy this week, but it wasn't because of the NCAA basketball tournament. Pedro - named by his creators after a character in the film Napoleon Dynamite - was one of 64 robots created by high school teams competing in the Chesapeake Regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition, which began Thursday and ends today.

"This is an awesome opportunity for these kids," said Debbie Heyes, a physics teacher from South River and one of the team's mentors. "Not only do they work together as a team, they learn about technology and its uses and how to problem-solve under time pressures."

The FIRST Robotics Competition this year includes more than 28,000 high school students on more than 1,000 teams from almost every state, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Teams that win at one of the 33 regional events qualify for the final competition, which will be in Atlanta at the end of next month. The Woodlawn High School team in Baltimore County is already registered for the final meet.

Of the hundreds of high school students at the regional competition in Annapolis, most came from Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. Two teams were from England, and others represented Alaska, California and Texas. Some spectators dressed as robots or superheroes as they cheered on their teams from the stands. Many fans wore pins, some sporting dozens of them. Members of one team wore tuxedos.

Robots score points by shooting balls - which are smaller and lighter than regulation basketballs -into a center hoop, pushing them into one of four corner goals or by getting onto a platform before the 70-second game is over. Many of the robots are designed to pick up balls and funnel them up into a shooting mechanism.

The robots are controlled by a team of four students: a driver, a shooter, a coach and a "human player" who stands behind the corner goals and refills balls.

South River built Pedro - 35 inches wide, 44 inches long and 47 1/2 inches high - over six weeks, using the same material given to all teams. The robot has two battery-powered engines on either side, allowing it to run like a tank. There are high-traction wheels on the back. Students made it by forming teams that handled the electrical system, programming, driving and mechanism, and other elements.

When a game begins, the first 10 seconds are reserved as "autonomous" periods, where the robots function according to the students' computer programs and are not controlled. In the first game Pedro's program had a glitch, but in the second the robot went immediately to one of his team's corner goals and pushed several balls in.

All in all, South River students were very pleased after Pedro scored the first goal in the center hoop yesterday, and they danced wildly to the Village People's "YMCA" in the bleachers at Halsey Field House. Mike Wade, an aerospace engineering technician at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which sponsored the South River team and a few others, said the FIRST Robotics events are important to NASA.

"For us, it's not just about building a robot," Wade said. "We want to get these kids motivated by the competition to go into engineering and technology fields. It shows them that they can do this, that they can build something."

Chuck Collison, 15, who was on the driving team that helped to assemble Pedro's frame, engines and transmissions, said he doesn't want to be an engineer or scientist. He plans to become a police officer.

"I like that it's just competition and friendship in the same area," said Collison, a sophomore. "I mean, a little earlier, we were having some trouble with our programming, and another team came over and helped us out."

Pat McKenna, who helped design and build Pedro's electrical board, definitely wants to be an engineer, he said, although he's not sure what kind.

"I like the fact that we take a bunch of spare parts and make it into something," said McKenna, 15, a freshman. "You can make something that works out of nothing."

Janina Vaitkus, a 14-year-old freshman, is one of the few girls on the team, although she said it doesn't matter to her.

"There's some stigma out there, but I've always felt like I have a lot to offer," she said, adding that she wants to be an electrical or architectural engineer. "And obviously we do a lot better working together, so I just love it."

The competition, held at Halsey Field House at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, is open to the public and begins at 9 a.m., with an awards ceremony at 3 p.m.


On the Web: www.mitc.org/first

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