Building future technology leaders by building robots
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Jan 30, 2013, 12:13
contributed photo/B. Capaldo A member of the Hopewell High Robotics Team practices driving a robot.
It’s been four weeks since the Robotics Team of Hopewell High learned that they would have six weeks to design and construct a robot that can throw a frisbee and climb a 10 foot pyramid.
That news came at the Jan. 5 meeting of FIRST, an acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” at Virginia Commonwealth University. FIRST aims to create future science and technology leaders by inspiring young people with programs including the annual robotics competition, which involves students from across the commonwealth.
With the weeks dwindling away, the local Blue Devils team can be found in the high school robotics lab after school on Mondays and Thursdays, tinkering with tools and computer programs to get their robot just right.
Alex Salas, instructional technology resource teacher at the high school, offers advice and guidance to help the students build and design not one, but two robots.
“Every year the competition is different,” Alex Salas said. “We have different tasks, and every year we, have a kick-off for the competition and it’s something different.”
The two robots will face other robots created by other schools in two competitions, the FRC, or FIRST Robotics Competition, and the FTC, or FIRST Technology Competition.
The larger robot, which will take the field in the FRC competition, will throw the frisbee. The smaller robot for the FTC competition will retrieve rings and place them on pegs.
Building robots to complete those tasks is a multi-step process; first, a student has to set up a program on the computer, which is then used to program the robot. The process culminates when the student programs a controller to direct all the robot’s movements.
“First we look at the task,” Alex Salas said, explaining his team’s method. “We decide what we want it to do. We have different ideas. We brainstorm different ideas. We take a couple of them. We try never to trash any idea one of the ideas the students have, even if it’s completely unreal. We want to put it out there and at least talk it out and see, ‘Oh yea, we really can’t do it.’ It’s them who realize, ‘Yes that’s kind of impossible to do.”
Salas said he enjoys watching the students work together on their robots, especially when they mentor one another. Another mentor in the lab is Jason Hogue, a mechanical engineers with BluePrint Automation in Colonial Heights, which, along with Northrop Grumman and James Madison University, sponsors of the robotics team.
Hogue said he helps the students in any way he can before the competition. He said that the most challenging aspect of developing a robot to complete a specific task is getting the ball, and consequently, the robot, rolling.
“We’ll sit there and talk about, ‘Hey I got an idea,’ eventually you need to stop and you’ve got to build it and you need to see if it really works,” Hogue said. “I think one of the most challenging things is to get over that idea hump and get something going and get something you can touch, you can see if it really works or not.”
contributed photo/B. Capaldo Blue Print Automation Engineer and mentor Jason Hogue with students.
Since the process is multi-step and multi-faceted, students tend to gravitate toward particularly areas of expertise.
Senior Ray Paden, has become the go-to person for advice on tools.
“I’m the only one who knows how to use all the power tools in the room,” Paden said. “This is only my second year, but I’ve been around engineering and power tools my whole life, so it’s nothing new to me. It’s just another day I guess. It’s more fun than engineering things I’ve done in the past.”
During the competitions, things move fast and the students have little time to complete their tasks. Both competition matches will only last a little over two minutes.
“Another thing we do with them is have them realize through engineering how can we achieve and meet all the goals,” Salas said, explaining what else goes into being a mentor for the students.
Although being successful in the competition is something the students always want to do, Salas wants them to realize that is not all there is to being in robotics.
“For our team our main goal is not to win the competitions, but our main goal is the process of getting to the competition, the process of learning of acquiring an experience and all those skills they acquire on that trajectory. Getting there is something they will keep for the rest of their lives.”
For Milena Salas, a junior at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and captain of the team, it is a skill set she hopes to take with here when she graduates from high school.
“I’ve grown up with it my entire life,” Salas said. “I’ve been doing robotics since I was in 5th grade. I started with the little Lego ones. It’s kind of been part of me and now I go to the Governor’s School for technology. I want to do mechanical engineering [in college].”
contributed photo/B. Capaldo Milena Salas and Ray Paden work on assembling one of the robots.
On a late January day in the lab, Salas was using her knowledge and experience to help design and plan the bigger robot.
“We have a new design for it,” Milena Salas said. “We’re just trying to modify it and see what we can do better and get to know it a bit better.”
Jeffrey Baker, a sophomore at Hopewell High School, was getting to know the robot a bit better through the computer. He joined the robotics club so he could fill his time after school and it quickly developed into a hobby. He refers to knowledge he in a web master club at a school he attended previously in his endeavors.
“I like doing things with code, and thought I could do programming for the robots,” he said.
Baker is also using his skills to design and build a website for the team, which he said should launch later this month.
Regardless of what each student brings to the drawing table, Hogue said the competitions teach them something more, a lesson to take beyond the robots.
“In FIRST Robotics, they also push professional morals,” Hogue said. “They’re very big with this gracious professionalism, which is, you’re competing against another team but if another team needs a hand in anything, then you’ll absolutely help because the common goal for everyone is to learn and have a good time. But the main goal of the program is to create engineers in the U.S.”
The team put their robots to the test at the FTC robot competition in Norfolk on Saturday. The FRC robot competition will be held on Feb. 23 at Virginia State University.