Teamwork leads students to build a better robot

Baltimore Sun

With a booming announcer in the style of a pro-wrestling match, enough spare parts lying around to satisfy a NASCAR pit crew and enough school spirit for a Friday night football game, a newcomer looking for the robot battle might think he'd found the wrong room.

But to the high school students competing this weekend in the Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, their sport is as nail-bitingly exciting as wrestling, racing and football combined - only brainier.

"There are geeks in there," said Taylor Bailey, a sophomore from Woodlawn High School, one of dozens of area high schools entered in the event. "But geeks have a tendency to have the most fun."

About a thousand students from area schools that included the Park School, Dulaney High, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High and Digital Harbor High competed in the three-day event at the Baltimore Convention Center.

By the end of Saturday afternoon, just three teams were left standing, winning invitations to represent the Chesapeake area in the world championship, which is next month in Atlanta. The winning team includes an alliance of Boys' Latin, Chesapeake High School in Anne Arundel County and a school from New Hampshire.

The gist of the competition was to design and build a robot capable of fetching balls, rolling them to the team's goal post and then flicking them up a ramp to score. But the underlying purpose was to challenge young people and encouraging them to work together.

"This is about fun for kids," said Pattie Cook, the regional director of the nonprofit FIRST, an acronym taken from the saying: "For inspiration and recognition of science and technology." Its goal is to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. "Science and technology are fun," Cook said.

Each team has been working to build its robot for the past six weeks, clocking hours after school and on the weekends - sometimes even pulling all-nighters.

The students recruited corporate sponsors to help pay for the robots, which can cost as much as $10,000.

Shaun Munroe, a sophomore at Poly, said being on the team changed his mind about engineering. Now he's considering majoring in robotics when he goes to college.

"It gives you a really great challenge to work through in your head," he said. "You have to think about how things work."

David Clash, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, was one of the mentors working with Woodlawn's team. He's had four children on robotics teams and enjoys watching the kids work hard together to excel.

"Most of the people on the team can point to something that they did," he said. "But it's really the teamwork - they have to really cooperate and almost think for each other."

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