Ryan Cunningham and Benjamin Moy, sophomores in Bob Hawthorne's engineering design class at Long Reach High School, were trying to teach the robot they had built to think.
Well, not really to think. Just to avoid some objects and recognize others, without benefit of remote control.
Cunningham and Moy were preparing for the Mars Rover Challenge, sponsored by the Technology Education Association of Maryland. The competition, scheduled for March 17 at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, is open to all Maryland students in grades seven through 10.
The students placed their robot on a large table that had been set up with bricks interspersed to create an obstacle course. The idea was for the robot to get from one end to the other without being blocked by the bricks.
When the robot gently bumped into the first brick, it turned, but not far enough. The students returned to the computer to tweak their coding.
Hawthorne, who has been teaching the engineering class for 11 years, watched but did not help, noting that much of engineering is "testing, testing, testing." Kids learn by doing, he said, and they seem to do some of their best work when they are preparing for a contest.
"I've found that taking kids and giving them challenges that are relatively unstructured releases their creativity and lets them discover the joy of problem-solving," he said.
That is why Hawthorne's students are taking part in four competitions this school year. Three are in the future, but the students did well in the first one, becoming the only Maryland team to get to the semifinals, Hawthorne said.
That national competition, sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society, asked students to solve a problem for a hypothetical employee with a disability.
The students in Hawthorne's class came up with a special tray for a person who buses tables who had been disabled by a stroke. The four students in the competition - seniors Alex Streat and Allen Snyder and juniors Tyler Alokohis and Obi Ukwuoma - said at first they tried to invent a complicated automated tray that could move up and down.
They brainstormed and argued, and they finally realized they needed to find a simple and elegant solution to the problem. That is when they invented a tray that affixes around a person's waist and has a rail around the edge to hold items in place.
"The challenge was coming up with a reasonable idea," Streat said. "We slowed it down, we took a step back, and we started thinking about it logically."
More than 85 teams from schools throughout the country entered the competition. About 30, including the Long Reach team, made it to the semifinal round, Hawthorne said.
Students said the contest helped them learn how to work together and how to think logically about solving problems.
Hawthorne's students are preparing for the next three competitions: The Mars Rover Challenge, the Robot Challenge sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and the Botball competition, a robotics challenge scheduled for May 12 at the University of Maryland, College Park.
For Botball, students create robots that will compete without remote controls, by using sensors to detect light and color.
In a hallway outside the classroom, a large blue trophy from the 2005 Botball competition sits in a case, reminding students that Hawthorne's class has a winning tradition.
Meanwhile, throughout the classroom, about a dozen students were working on robots, mostly for the Mars Rover Challenge.
Juniors Robert Boettcher, Matthew McKenna and Jeremy Hsu were sorting through small plastic parts and had not started to build.
"Our report is due in, like, two weeks," Boettcher said.
Also at the Museum of Industry is the IEEE Robot Challenge, scheduled for April 28-29. For that competition, students must build a robot that can walk on its own, even over rough terrain.
Hawthorne said he particularly likes the rover and robot challenges because the performance is only one component. Students must also submit a written report and deliver an oral report. They are also judged on design and construction.
"You can be the fastest and still lose," Hawthorne said.