'The Robotiators'

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Glenelg High Team Girds For Robotic Competition

August 02, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Team 888 from Glenelg High School gathered at 7 a.m. Thursday in the school's parking lot, a bit sleep-deprived perhaps, but definitely pumped up.

The night before, 12 students had checked off 1,500 pounds of supplies on a lengthy packing list in preparation for their 10-hour journey to the Indiana Robotics Invitational, an elite competition for the top 72 teams in the world.

Along with the robot they designed and built, their team was transporting tools, spare parts, extension cords, 12-volt gel batteries and chargers - anything members might possibly need during the two-day event that ended Saturday.

The Robotiators - a name that blends "robots" and "Gladiators," the school's mascot - were ready to rumble.

"Here at Glenelg, geeks and nerds are considered cool," said Dean Sheridan, the team's mentor and a longtime math and engineering teacher at the school, as the students fine-tuned their entry earlier last week.

"We've created a unique culture where our team's lead designer is as well-respected as the captain of the football team," he said.

"Who is the football team captain anyway?" asked 2009 graduate Nick Boeh teasingly. He's one of several alumni who devoted summertime hours to help tweak the team's robot, which competed earlier this year, for a rematch in Indianapolis. During the school year, between 20 and 25 students are on the team.

The IRI is a popular off-season event sponsored by FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The nonprofit group founded in 1989 strives to put sizzle into science by organizing robot face-offs that boast the adrenaline-infused atmosphere of a sporting event, play-by-play announcers included. This season's competitions attracted nearly 200,000 students from 51 countries.

"So much time and effort and adulation are poured into athletes, and so little into scientists," said Sheridan, who has led a robotics team at Glenelg for eight years.

"Competitions like this one aim to get society to honor and promote kids who are pursuing careers in science and technology," said the 32-year teacher for whom the school's robot was named "The Dean."

While there are 26 teams in Maryland, it's only been in the past couple of years that two other county schools, Atholton and Hammond, have participated, according to FIRST's Web site.

The FIRST Robotics Competition kicks off each year on the first Saturday in January at precisely 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, when the year's new game is revealed worldwide on the Web via 3-D animated video from the organization's headquarters in Manchester, N.H.

Only after the entire video is viewed can a team access a code to download the manual and begin working. This year's instructions numbered 140 pages, 20 of them devoted to the precise method of sending crated robot entries via FedEx by 5 p.m. the Tuesday after Presidents Day, Sheridan said.

In the intervening six-week period, Glenelg's team spends between 40 and 60 hours a week outside of school designing a robot to handle a challenge like 2009's Lunacy.

In Lunacy, radio-controlled robots, measuring no more than 28 inches wide by 38 inches long by 60 inches high, were given the task of filling trailers they pulled behind them with balls called Moon Rocks - all done on a very slippery floor. Finalists competed at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in April.

The event this weekend is a do-over of sorts for selected competitors, who get another attempt at Lunacy and correcting any shortcomings they observed in their robots the first time around. Only 72 of the 300 applicants were chosen, Sheridan said.

But mainly, an off-season event is "just another chance to play the game," said Boeh, who will study physics and engineering in the fall.

Sam Castelli, who graduated from Glenelg in May and is working on a project involving robotic arms as an intern at NASA this summer, said he returned to help redesign the way "The Dean" dumps the balls into the trailer, hoping to make the robot work more efficiently.

He also likes the concept of "gracious professionalism" that the competitions stress, a philosophy of collaboration in which rival teams happily offer assistance to one another.

"No one person knows how to make everything work," said Stephen DiBenedetto, a rising senior at Glenelg. "It takes a while to find out what you're good at, and getting advice helps."

Sheridan said most groups excel at teamwork, but it all comes together when the commentators begin announcing the game like they're covering the NCAA basketball championships.

"Teams go back and forth between being in an athletic competition to working in a NASCAR-style pit - it's just one of the coolest things," he said, adding that the top eight teams choose who will compete against them in the elimination rounds.

"The IRI involves the world's best teams, and it's the only competition we've been in where we've never made it that far," the mentor said. "It doesn't matter, though - we go for the ambience of the place and to learn."

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