Glenelg robotics club revved up for Grand Prix of Baltimore

At first glance, Room 175 at Glenelg High School looks like your average lab room at the end of a school day -- wooden tables stacked with overturned chairs, high ceilings with dangling blocks of fluorescent lighting and drawers of supplies lining the sides of the classroom.

But step in and peer a little further and you'll see a looming, 10-foot pyramid of the old-school playground variety -- a simplified version of the structure that kids used to climb and dangle from by their knees. And underneath there's a robot, squat like a crate with wheels and painted red.

This is the headquarters of the Glenelg High School Robotics Club. They built the robot, which can launch Frisbees and hang from the pyramid, for a competition early this year, and christened it "The Dean" after club adviser Dean Sheridan.

On Friday, Aug. 30, the club will take "The Dean" to the Grand Prix of Baltimore to show off its skills to racing fans. They'll also get a tour of the pit area and cars from professional racer and engineering enthusiast Charlie Kimball.

Glenelg's Robotics Club was chosen for the event because it's the oldest of its kind in the Baltimore area. Sheridan, who teaches engineering and calculus classes and coaches girls soccer at the high school, started the club 13 years ago to give his advanced calculus students an opportunity to put their skills to use.

Every winter, the club develops a new robot for competition. With each year comes a new set of assignments, and just six weeks to build the final product. The team members begin by prioritizing what functions will be their focus.

For "The Dean," they decided to concentrate on Frisbee collecting and shooting, since climbing to the top of the pyramid would take up most of the two-minute competition time. Instead, they had their robot hang from the bottom rung of the pyramid and then move on to scoring points with the Frisbees.

Building the robot is an exercise in teamwork. Each member has a different set of skills to contribute to the effort — some know how to code while others are better at design and construction.

"No one in here, myself included, knows how to make every single part of this robot work," said Sheridan, who keeps his involvement to a minimum, after the first day of school, Aug. 26.

"It's nice to see each component will come together and form a whole," said Evan Paregol, a 15-year-old sophomore on the team.

In competition, they team up with two groups to face off against three other robots. The club decided to make "The Dean" a primarily defensive robot, so it could focus on blocking other groups from retrieving Frisbees.

The competition also features an "autonomous round," 15 seconds in which the team uses code to command the robot to do a particular task on its own.

All of the robotics club members, who jokingly refer to themselves as "The Robotiators," said they were considering a future career in engineering.

"I was interested in this because of the opportunities it seemed to pose," said Ben Perlman, 17, a senior and the club's oldest member. "And I really just wanted to use some of the tools and meet the people that would be interested in the same things as me and really just have fun with it."

They all said the club provided them with useful, real-world skills.

"I joined because I've always liked math and I've always thought about being an engineer," said Matt Owen, 15, a sophomore. "A lot of what we learn in here we will actually use if we go on to become engineers."

Junior Mark Carman, 16, said he had spotted the same materials he used in robotics club on college visits to engineering schools.

"If you go into the engineering department and you look at what they're using, I'm seeing all the same components that are on that robot on display," Carman said.

"College always wants to mimic the workplace, so you know getting into the workplace you're going to be using the same stuff, and you're going to have so much more experience than everyone else," he added.

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