Canby Motors' former showroom in Aberdeen swelled with sports-like cheers Monday evening, as a packed crowd of more than 100 area residents watched a robot, built by Harford and Cecil county high school age students, climb a ramp and shoot basketballs into a hoop some six feet away.
"For me, school is my sport," said 16-year-old Sophie Haire, a home schooled junior from Havre de Grace, one of the robot builders. "Some people play lacrosse or basketball; I play calculus and constitutional law. Scholastic excellence brings me a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction."
Sophie is one of 21 high school students who are part of the newly formed FIRST Robotics Challenge team Absolute Zero Electricity, sponsored by the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the National Defense Education Program and JC Penney.
The team's robot will compete at the Baltimore Convention Center March 8-10 in the Rebound Rumble Robotics Game, where teams will try to score as many basketballs in hoops as possible during a two-minute and 15-second match. They're vying for a spot - along with 2,300 other teams - at the national competition taking place in St. Louis in April. Also at stake is a piece of nearly $14 million in college scholarships, awarded to FIRST students every year.
The competition is part of US FIRST, founded in New Hampshire as a public charity in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology, and motivate them to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math. (FIRST is the acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)
Absolute Zero Electricity was one of eight teams showcasing their engineering skills Monday at the biggest FIRST robotics event in the Harford. The teams are part of TechBrick, an umbrella organization founded in 2003, as a robotics club for homes schooled students in Harford, Baltimore and Cecil counties. The umbrella organization has seven competition teams of more than 50 students that meet weekly with 14 adult and a handful of student mentors. TechBrick includes elementary age students in the Jr. FIRST Lego League to the high school students in FRC and the First Tech Challenge.
"Harford County has a great opportunity with all the resources the Army has placed in this area," said Dr. Christopher Hoppel, chief of the Army Research Laboratory's Soldier Protection Sciences Branch at APG and a TechBrick coach. "The scientists and engineers working at Aberdeen Proving Ground are addressing some of the most complex problems in the world. This gives students great opportunities through programs like Gains in the Education in Mathematics and Science, e-CYBERMISSION, and FIRST robotics to learn from those scientists and engineers. These students will grow up with a greater appreciation for technology, and will be more successful in using this technology."
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, where Hoppel works, is the Army's central laboratory for materiel technology. Its diverse assortment of unique facilities and its workforce of government engineers and scientists comprise the largest source of world class integrated research and analysis in the Army.
ARL's programs consist of basic and applied research and survivability/lethality analysis. Its mission is to provide innovative science, technology, and analyses to enable full-spectrum operations for the Army.
Hoppel said he became a robotics coach about four years ago, when his own children - all home schooled - became interested in it and needed coaches.
"It's great that the Hoppels wanted to start this kind of a club in the neighborhood for our kids instead of just getting together and riding bikes," said Christy Ward, of Havre de Grace, who teachers middle school language arts in Elkton. Her 6-year-old son Connor is a member of the Hutchins Snackers, the youngest team under TechBrick.
"Connor barely knew about Legos, but now he knows what to do with them," Ward said. "He sees there's life inside of them."
Ward said that because of her son's Junior Lego League team participation, he can go beyond the excitement that video games can bring.
"He's not even super-good at this, and it doesn't even matter!" she said.
Hoppel said he decided to "stick with" coaching "because it is really great fun. I love the competition, and seeing children learn and improve."
"I was fortunate to have several great mentors growing up," Hoppel remembered. "My scoutmaster was Richard Balliet. I learned self-confidence from him because he gave me lots of opportunities to grow and succeed. He was always looking for opportunities where one scout could teach another an important skill. That creates a leadership factory; teaching a skill to a peer helps you grow in self-confidence as a teacher, and the student learns more readily when they see a peer being able to do the same thing. I believe robotics is the same way. When a few students teach others, all of them rise up more quickly than if an adult tries to teach a large group."
Hoppel's earliest interest in STEM was likely sparked when his father gave him, at age six, a Radio Shack kit to build a crystal radio from scratch. "I thought it was amazing that you could put a few parts together and then have music playing!" he said.
Since then, he's been amassing that same kind of excitement but in far more complex projects, like working on vehicle armor.
"At ARL we led the research and development for kits which were fielded in Operation Iraqi Freedom that saved soldiers lives," he explained. "I had the opportunity to meet several of the soldiers whose lives were saved by our armors, and I felt fortunate to work in this area," said Hoppel, who received his doctorate in engineering science and mechanics.
Sophie Haire sees herself having that same kind of excitement about her career.
"My options for a career are so vast and varied," she said. "I can't just pick one! I know what I love and what I excel in and plan to find a career that encompasses both."
"I have always been interested in, and good at math and science," she continued. "I had never applied the concepts I'd learned to real-life scenarios in a significant way. FIRST robotics seemed like a perfect way to use my current knowledge, learn new skills, and meet like minded people my age in a work environment."
She said she spends eight hours on weekdays working on FIRST, and from this experience, she's developing a stronger sense of teamwork and time management in ways she wouldn't expect as a student. Her role on the team, she said, is a "nominal programmer" but where she adds the most value, she said, is in learning the rules for robot building and translating that to the team, and serving as the chief essay writer for award submissions.
"For my entire family, excellence is what we do," Sophie said. "To neglect putting effort into a required task is to neglect virtue and common sense. Academic success particularly is the success most valued in American life. Excellence in pursuits like football or dance may get a person glory for a while, but after college and in the workplace, for the majority of Americans, one's ability to pirouette or throw a ball is irrelevant."
T'Jae Gibson, is a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground - Editor.