CHS team hopes for domination in NASA robotics contest
By MARY BROWNFIELD
Published: February 27, 2009
CONTRIBUTIONS OF time and money, teachers’ guidance and input, and two dozen teenagers’ hard work manifested in a robot that was created at Carmel High School during the last two months.
The shiny, motorized and computer-controlled creation was shipped to Silicon Valley last week for competition in a regional event organized as part of the FIRST For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program sponsored by NASA.
Formed in 1989 to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership,” the nonprofit holds its FIRST Robotics Competition annually. This year’s involves 1,684 teams of 42,100 high-school students from 48 states, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Turkey and the U.K. who spent six weeks designing and building robots from identical parts to compete in a game called “Lunacy” that involves robots trying to get various types of spheres into other robots’ baskets and in particular areas around a hard-surfaced game field.
Carmel High’s robot will compete at San Jose State University March 12-14, and again in Davis March 26-28.
“The rule book’s about like a phone book,” said CHS teacher Paul McFarlin, who began getting students interested in robotics when he came to work for the school three years ago. His first team had eight kids; this year, more than two dozen showed up at the first meeting last fall.
“It’s an eclectic group, because you bring together lots of kids with different interests and perspectives,” commented computer science teacher Tom Clifford as he, McFarlin, the students and robotics professional Steve Jacobs worked through the Presidents Day holiday to test and finish their machine.
“We’ll have two drivers: one steering, and one handling the ball mechanism,” McFarlin explained. After the “game” was announced in January, the class gathered to discuss strategy and what the students would want their robot to do.
“We can play offense or defense, because there are three robots on a team,” he said. “Some robots will do all aspects of the game; some will try to block us from getting balls. We always try to build a robot that will do everything.”
McFarlin, Clifford and biology teacher Colin Matheson, CHS students from several grades, parents, and experts from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and SJ Automation LLC settled on a design and spent weeks constructing, testing, dealing with failures, solving problems and revising their plans.
“These kids put in 20 hours a week after school for six weeks and then are here during their week off working 12-hour days,” McFarlin said.
“The idea of FIRST is to encourage students to learn about science and technology, and I think we do a good job of the theoretical in the classroom,” Clifford added. “And this is a really powerful practical experience that students have.”
The first day of competition allows for practicing and getting the bugs out, and the next day-and-a-half includes a round robin to seed the teams before the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.
Last year, parents, administrators and others attended the competitions and discovered “it’s a completely different kind of event from what they’re used to,” Clifford said.
“It’s a lot of fun, and a lot of work,” McFarlin said. “This is a pretty sophisticated robot it has four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering and because the timeframe is really short, you have to do it and try and modify all the time.
“And you’re never done until the competition’s over, and you think, ‘We should have done that.’”
Padre robotics future
Jacobs, who owns SJ Automation LLC in Marina and helped work on the machine, also made a sizable donation to the robotics program. On Feb. 12, the Carmel Unified School District board of education accepted a milling machine, a lathe, a band saw, and computer, robotics and electronics equipment worth a total $22,000.
“Here’s a guy who builds robots for a living sitting alongside students,” commented Clifford, who said the team couldn’t have built its robot without Jacobs’ help.
Jacobs said he is thrilled to give back to the school he attended “many years ago.”
In college, Jacobs “was inspired by one of my teachers to really learn a lot about mechanics, and that led me to become an inventor.” With his own successful company and more than a dozen patents to his name, Jacobs said he wanted to return the favor by lending his skills, knowledge, equipment and designs to CHS kids who might be similarly inspired.
“I want to provide a nutrient-rich environment that the students will feed on according to their appetites,” he said. In addition to donating heavy equipment and computers, Jacobs contributed his own intellectual property to help teens learn about design.
“Some of the patents involved are related to robotics,” said Jacobs, who has created robotic floor cleaners, military applications, circuit boards and other equipment for clients. By using an array he developed that senses its environment, Jacobs said, students might be able to construct a wheelchair that doesn’t bump into doorways or furniture, for example.
He also hopes his donations will help toward the creation of a full robotics/computer/electronics lab.
“The school has been really, really positive in encouraging us all,” he said. “We are going to put together an equipment list and by next fall plan to have it open.”