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Students gear up for high-tech games

With the help of volunteer Monikka Mann, ninth grader Quinn Martin gets a lesson in the computer programming -
With the help of volunteer Monikka Mann, ninth grader Quinn Martin gets a lesson in the computer programming
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MARYSVILLE The game itself seems remarkably simple.
All players have to do is grab a ball and then move that ball around a track by just about any means possible, from throwing to kicking or pushing. Points are awarded for both how fast and for how many balls teams can chauffeur around the track.
The catch here is that the players on the field are robots, robots designed, built and controlled by high school students. In many ways, the real competition takes place long before anyone robot or human takes to the playing field. And that competition started Jan. 5, when teams from around the world learned at the same exact moment what this years robotic challenge will be and picked up kits containing the hundreds of pieces and parts that will hopefully become actual, working robots.
Founded in New Hampshire, the international, non-profit FIRST organization (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) launched organized robotic competitions in 1992. According to the FIRST Web site, over 150,000 students took part in last years contests. For the 2008 games, Marysville school will be represented for the first time with a team from the Arts and Technology High School.
Tenth grader Michael Rourk said signing up for the robotics challenge was akin to someone joining the military in order to drive a tank, something you otherwise just wouldnt be in a position to do.
Its just kind of cool, he said. We get to play with all this stuff.
The stuff Rourk referred to was four crates of raw robotics materials donated by various manufacturers. The kits include everything from bags and bags of nuts and bolts to what 11th grader Gabe Spencer identified as the motor from a toy car.
Gabe admitted he has a little experience with the motors, having taken one apart and removed the governor which controlled the speed. He claims he got the toy to move about 30 mph. While she normally might frown on such experiments, A and T teacher Katherine Jordan could find those experiences handy in the next six weeks. Thats how long teams have to design and assemble their robots.
Itll be the end of six weeks of too much coffee and too much caffeine, Jordan said, adding she intends for the team to gather virtually every school day during that time.
At the end of the six weeks, finished robots must be crated off to Tacoma, the location of this years regional competition. Once they arrive in Tacoma, robots must stay sealed and untouched inside their containers until the March competition.
All in all, about 30 students have signed up or the A and T school team. Jordan and Totem Middle School manufacturing teacher Mike Fitzpatrick are leading the effort, but they and their students are receiving some help from a couple of competition veterans. Husband and wife Don Prier and Monikka Mann are acting as professional mentors to the team, as encouraged by FIRST rules. Both Prier and Mann are engineers for B/E Aerospace in Marysville. But in past years, Prier was a math teacher and has helped mentor FIRST robotics teams off and on for nine years.
Last week, after a couple of team meetings, the A and T squad had settled on a sort of fork-lift design for their creation, keeping in mind the ball that robot will have to move around the track is a large one, about 40 inches in diameter.
As he talks about the overall design, Prier reminds students to keep in mind such things as the robots center of gravity, how much power they want it to have, whether they want front wheel drive or rear wheel drive and the advantages of each. And, of all the issues the team needs to tackle, those are just a few, Fitzpatrick noted.
For one thing, Fitzpatrick said that during competition, the robots are controlled for the most part by students using a system of their own design. But at the very start of competition, robots are expected to be programmed to act on their own. If a robot actually can advance a ball with no direction from its handlers, those handlers score some big points, Fitzpatrick said. In short, students need to learn some pretty sophisticated computer programming. And fast.
Its all real world engineering, said Mann, who has helped her husband with competitions in the past.
Besides helping the team with their advice and guidance, Prier and Mann obtained a $5,000 grant from B/E to defray the cost of the initial robot kit. As a rookie team, the A and T school also was eligible for a $1,000 grant from FIRST. But FIRST doesnt supply every thing needed to make a complete robot. Jordan said the squad may need another $5,000 to get their creation up and running, as well as make the trip to the Tacoma competition. Anyone looking to help, can send an e-mail to pengbots@earthlink.net.

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