- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

Members of the Robotics Club at Rockville’s Col. Zadok Magruder High School never met a robot they didn’t like.

Of course, most of them had only met two — the ones they built last year and this year for the Chesapeake FIRST Regional robotics competition. It doesn’t take into account the robots that ultimately defeated theirs.

The robotic devices they built themselves are tested in the contest to see how quickly they can lift large plastic rings and place them onto horizontal metal poles. At least that’s part of it. As complicated as robots may be, the rules for competition are even more daunting.

The unusual challenge is part of a robotics competition sponsored for the past 16 years by FIRST, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in New Hampshire. The Magruder club’s 25 members were among an estimated 32,000 young people in the United States and abroad participating in a staggered series of regional events leading to the national robotics playoffs in Atlanta in April.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition is unusual because points that lead to prize money are given for team spirit and cooperation as well as for the robot’s performance. The idea behind the contest, founded by inventor Dean Kamen, is to generate appreciation of and interest in science and technology by building on the same excitement generated in sport.

Magruder High School was involved this year for only the second time, fielding one of 58 teams at the Chesapeake FIRST Regional contest — titled “Rack ‘n’ Roll” — which concluded Saturday at the U.S. Naval Academy’s field house in Annapolis. The two-day event resembled a series of high-tension basketball games operated by remote control: March madness of an entirely different kind.

The event required the Magruder team to design and build a robot within six weeks, using whatever tools the team members could devise and working with only a basic kit of parts that are the same for every entry. Team members learn to work together by understanding how each can contribute to better all their chances.

Rules for the regional meet require that teams be randomly grouped to earn points with other teams as well, but the groupings aren’t revealed until the last minute. (The better-known Intel Science Talent Search, by contrast, encourages individual initiative and the development of cutting-edge research.)

The FIRST challenge is a costly enterprise, both in terms of time and money, and requires the help of many adult volunteers and the support of underwriters from the private and public sector. Fortunately for Magruder, the U.S. Department of Commerce this year gave a $10,000 grant to its project, with the remainder of the money — $6,000 is required just to enter — coming from local corporations.

When a notice went up asking for volunteers at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology to advise the team, Magruder got lucky a second time with the response from engineer Kevin Lyons. An engineering specialist in the fields of nanometrology and nanomanufacturing whose four children had graduated from the school, he became the lead adviser among four institute employees involved. Mentoring is a large part of the program.

“Team spirit” may be a cliche, but it becomes real under the pressure of regional and national competitions. Jenny Beatty of Baltimore, a FIRST “senior mentor” for Maryland, tells of the time when a team’s robot was lost en route to the Atlanta finals and the other teams got together to build a replacement in 12 hours.

“Other teams you are grouped with may not do anything, but you still have to perform,” explains Lauren Miller, 18, a graduating senior and president of the Magruder Robotics Club. She is taking part in the contest for the second time.

“It sounded like a really fun idea,” she says, explaining why she got involved. She wants a career in engineering, either chemical or mechanical, but says that last year she was more involved in “paperwork and PR” rather than hands-on design. Throughout the actual competition, she says, “you compare robots [in your grouping] and see who can do the best job based on an overall strategy.”

Students also are responsible for a Web site and other auxiliary tasks, with casual oversight from Melissa Cloyd, a teacher of digital electronics and computer-integrated manufacturing in Magruder’s Academy of Engineering.

“I’m a newcomer on the block. Often I’ve no idea what they are talking about,” she says of club members’ ability to relate to each another. “They know who is creative, who is good in math. What is great about this program is they all have ideas on how to make it work. The kids make all the decisions.”

“You work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You need both objective and subjective thinking,” Miss Miller says. “We get no design instructions, only a lot of rules about what you can and cannot do.”

“It’s all process,” adds A.J. Simon, 17, a junior who agreed that the robots’ assigned task has little immediate application in the real world.

“You learn the whole time,” confirms Rashad Carlyle, 17, a senior who hopes to become an architectural engineer. “You become an observer and analyst and get to learn more about other people.” But without Mr. Lyons, he adds, “so many things we did would be wrong. He basically was our checklist.”

Club teams have official numbers — 1820 for Magruder, also identified by its chosen motto of “Havoc.” Unofficially, this year’s Magruder robot is named “Jack Bauer” after the fictional protagonist on the Fox TV show “24” known for his derring-do. Before being packed for shipping to Annapolis in a crate that students built themselves, “Jack” had a base size of 38 by 28 inches and could rise up to become 8 feet tall.

Team Havoc didn’t qualify for FIRST’s national championships, which will be held next month in Atlanta, but three other Greater-Washington/Baltimore high schools did. They are Dulaney of Timonium, Md.; Woodlawn of Baltimore County; and Chantilly High School in Chantilly.

Team members juggled this extracurricular activity after school hours along with sports and other clubs. Eventually, they worked weekends with Mr. Lyons and, at one point, visited a small sophisticated precision engineering firm owned by Frank Bloom, a friend of a man whose son is on the team.

“They showed up with only a week to go, came at 12 and left at 7,” Mr. Bloom says. “None had been in a machine shop. They worked well as a team … but they need a parent to get it coordinated, to give certain parts of the project to each one.” Shop employees helped make a few parts for the team, such as an arm and crossbeam bar.

Mr. Lyons stuck with them through the energy-driven experience in Annapolis. At his suggestion, the team had constructed simple prototypes and kept a notebook to see the evolution of the design. He says he saw his job as providing guidance through critiques, “to think through their designs so they would think of competing alternatives and decide on the best approach.”

In the end, he says, the competition was “just kind of gravy.”

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