On the second floor of a back building on the campus of Chandler High School, wires, metal and ingenious student planning come together to make an inanimate object come to life.
Over six weeks earlier this year, sometimes for hours into the night, a group of 18 students gathered to design a robot that would throw Frisbees, climb a pyramid and defend its teammate in a competition that would draw enough cheers and excitement to match a school football game.
So successful was Chandler High’s FIRST Robotics Competition team that it was ranked second going into the spring regional competition. And so inspiration was the team – with teen members mentoring younger students and its sponsorship of an underwater robotics competition – that it earned its first bid to the national competition.
The FIRST programs – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - worldwide teach students about how science, technology, engineering and math can be used. Students can participate in clubs and many then form teams to compete at different levels.
Thanks to a $15,000 donation to the Chandler team from the Gary Dean and Christine Newman Jones Foundation, 16 of its members will leave Tuesday to compete in St. Louis, Mo., in the national FIRST Robotics competition that’s been dubbed, “the varsity sport for the mind.”
The Chandler High School FIRST Robotics Competition team owes much of its existence to the Si Se Puede Foundation, which sponsors the FIRST programs for the younger and older students in the inner-city schools of Chandler. Each year, the foundation pays f participation, said Sam Alexander, the Chandler High club’s sponsor.
But the team had no idea it would make it to nationals, so it was a last-minute scramble to get the funds to travel there and compete. Thankfully, they said, with the Engineering Inspiration Award, NASA paid the team’s entrance fee for the competition itself.
The team itself is made of up five seniors, five juniors, three sophomore and three freshmen. Already, some of earned scholarships to attend Stanford, the University of Las Vegas, and Chandler-Gilbert Community College. More scholarships are on the line at the national event. Because of what they’ve learned through school and the club, some members of the “Robowolves” already work in programming and engineering, when they’re not in school, of course.
Much of the team didn’t realize that the inspiration award earned them a trip to the nationals, members said. But once they figured it out, news spread.
“I couldn’t sleep,” junior Kelsey Pendley, 17.
Planning the robot took team work. They were given a budget, and some pieces to work with, but not much else. They had to figure out a design, how to program the robot, and what facets of the game they wanted to focus on – defense or offense, said senior Kyle Huntsman, 18.
“We figured we wouldn’t try to go super awesome in one area, but do some in each category,” he said. “To make everything work together, you have to try something, see how it works, then redo it.”
Sometimes, those decisions came through a team vote.
“I think it’s really important to not get discouraged about failure,” Pendley said. “There were a lot of things that were not working, but we just worked through that. It’s important to just keep going.”
It’s senior Girard Poehls’ job to operate or “drive” the robot, a task he’s held for the last three years on the team. Growing up, he flew model airplanes, giving him quick skills and knowledge of how to operate a device yards away.
“The main trouble most drivers have in anything is when the robot is across the field coming toward you,” he said. “Most people don’t think you have to flip it around in your mind.”
But Alexander noted Poehls’ skills consistently earned the team extra points during competitions, something that could come into play in St. Louis.
To watch the event livestream Wednesday through Friday, go to http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/robotics/.
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