Robots hook students on science, math

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

Like surgeons in an operating room, high school students call out for the tools necessary to repair their patient.

“Hacksaw,” one calls out. Another student reaches inside a portable plywood tool cabinet and retrieves the tool.

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The “patient” in this case is Gip, a large metal robot, created from scratch by the Wildwood team, called the GIs, made up of students from five West County high schools.

The students have the robot on risers in the workshop area, behind the scenes from the arena where the remote-controlled robots compete.

While one student saws away at a bolt jutting out of the robot’s exterior, others fine-tune the mechanical and electronic systems in the chassis.

Team GI is just one of 45 teams of students from a dozen states competing at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) St. Louis Regional Competition, held at the St. Charles Family Arena last weekend.

This competition is one of 37 regional tournaments in the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands and Israel which will decide who will advance to the championship in Atlanta in mid-April.

Michael Solomon, 17, a Lafayette High School senior, and a member of United Hebrew Congregation, has been taking part in the Wildwood FIRST team since his freshman year.

Solomon is a programmer on the Wildwood team, writing the computer code that allows teammates to control the robot’s movement and function.

He said his job is often one of the last steps in the process of creating the robot.

Teams, who have professional mentors, are given six weeks beginning in January to create a robot that will be able to complete specific tasks, which it must perform in the competition. This year, the robots were required to compete with other teams to pick up and place red or blue inflatable rings onto a central metal tic-tac-toe rack structure, with 24 protruding metal arms upon which the rings are placed.

In addition, the robots could earn extra points at the end of the competition by lifting up allied robots (during the competition, teams are matched up to play three against three) over four inches off of the ground.

For Solomon, that means that the mechanical and electrical crews came up with the design, and he came in the final days, or even hours, to sync up the robot with computer programming to allow it to be controlled.

Since the robots have to shipped off to the competition site, the team cannot make adjustments after the six-week time allotted until the tournament begins. That left Solomon scrambling to make last-minute adjustments during the first day of the tournament.

“It’s really fun, but it basically means a full day of trying to reprogram it all, because things always get messed up or people want to make changes,” he said.

Solomon was drawn in during his freshman year by the prospect of working with robots.

“Freshman year, I heard something about working with robots, and I was like, ‘Whoa, robots. Sweet,'” he said. “I have really liked computers all my life, so I just showed up at a meeting and they got me started.”

“That’s the hook,” said Bruce Baeber, a software engineer and volunteer with FIRST. “Working with robots gives the perfect reason for students to get involved with math, science and engineering in a fun and exciting way.”

Frank Lydic, a spokesperson for the FIRST competition, said each team has to do much more than build a robot.

“It’s basically a small business,” he said. “Students have to get sponsorships, raise money, make a Web site and do their own marketing, on top of designing and building their robots.”

The average team needs about $10,000 to $15,000 to start up, which usually requires finding corporate sponsorship, according to a fact sheet on the FIRST Web site, www.usfirst.org.

Lydic said that FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen (the creator of the Segway Human Transporter) who saw a need for getting American students excited about math and science. Now, FIRST has grown to encompass 1,300 teams of students worldwide.

Solomon’s work on the team is a good fit for his college and career goals, as he hopes to double major in computer science and electrical engineering at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.

He said working on the team has taught him a lot about putting computer programming into real-world uses, working with the teams electrical and mechanical.

And Solomon’s programming work has rubbed off, as he has gotten his younger brother, Brad, a sophomore, involved with the team as well.