Math puzzle of a different sort

After unexpected wins, teams scramble to raise cash for robot-building championship

April 02, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After spending weeks building a robot, two teams that include Harford County students went to a regional competition last month with high hopes but modest expectations.

The teams - Cobra Robotics, based at Harford Technical High School in Bel Air, and the Umbrella Corporation, based at the Park School of Baltimore - imagined what it would be like to win but didn't expect it to happen.

However, the Harford Tech group was part of an alliance that won the competition. And the Park School team - comprising students from Park, Aberdeen High, Loyola High and Hereford Middle - won the Rookie All-Star Award.

The honors qualified both teams to compete with 340 others at the championship April 27-29 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

However, the problem-solving whizzes have a new dilemma - raising $10,000 to $20,000 to cover the costs of the Georgia trip.

"When an unexpected thing like winning comes up, you have to get the money somewhere," said Jimmie Shumate, a computer teacher at Harford Tech and a Cobra team mentor.

The teams have been participating in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology robotics competition. The program, administered by a nonprofit organization based in Manchester, N.H., is intended to nurture students' interests in science and technology. As part of a project to solve an engineering design problem, the teams build a robot and an electrical system to operate it.

Sixty-four teams took part in the regional event last month in Annapolis.

Officials from the teams that include Harford students say they expect to raise enough money for the Atlanta event but added that it wouldn't be easy.

Offers of financial support for the Harford Tech team started shortly after the regional competition, where the alliance was formed. The Cobra team was approached by a team from Garrett County that had finished the first phase of the event as the top-ranked group. The second phase consists of top teams picking others to join them and compete for a chance to advance to the championship event.

"They came to us and said that if we couldn't raise the money, to let them know and they would see if they could help," said Cindy Welkie, the parent mentor for the team.

Harford Tech Principal Charles Hagan made $11,000 from the school's general fund available for hotel and flight reservations, money that must be repaid. The Cobra team started the 2006 season with $30,000 but has spent it.

"We never dreamed we would win, so we didn't raise money to go to the finals," said Shumate. "We were blown away when we heard we won."

School officials estimated the team will need about $20,000. Hagan, who attended the Annapolis competition, said bowing out of the Atlanta event is not an option.

"We're very proud of the team and we want to do everything we can to help them out," he said.

Harford Tech student Joseph McClure said the win makes all the hard work worth it.

"To not go would just make my heart drop," said the 15-year-old Bel Air resident. "It would mean I lost my voice cheering at the competition for nothing. It would mean I did the work and made it to the top and couldn't follow it through."

The students made presentations to local businesses and brainstormed other fundraising ideas.

"We're doing whatever we can to raise the money we need because we realize this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Peter Ross, a team mentor who teaches drafting and computer-aided design at Harford Tech.

The Cobra team is not alone in its plight. Ten teams in Maryland are trying to raise money for the competition, said Jenny Beatty, FIRST senior mentor.

"This is not uncommon for a team to have to raise money after a regional to go to the championship competition," Beatty said. "This is an extremely intensive exercise the teams must complete in an impossible amount of time and they don't always have time to plan ahead once they get started."

Depending on how far a team advances, the endeavor can require as much as $50,000, said Beatty. The costs include a $6,000 sign-up charge for one regional competition and the robot kit, a $5,000 registration fee for each regional competition, up to $3,500 for parts not included in the kit, shipping costs and travel expenses .

The members of the team based at The Park School face a similar problem, having exhausted the $22,000 that was raised. The Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High is contributing $1,000 toward the $5,000 registration fee.

"We didn't anticipate how expensive the program was when we became involved with FIRST," said Donna Clem, who heads the SMA. "And though it isn't a lot, we wanted to help as much as we can."

The team's lead engineer Larry Albert, father of one of the Aberdeen students, said the program is about much more than raising money and winning.

"Winning was amazing, but the experience for the kids would have been just as valuable if they had not won," Albert said. "They built the robot together, they worked hard and they get to go to the championships together."

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