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Glenelg robotics club gears up for new season

Students in Glenelg High School's robotics club work on a 130-pound bot capable of picking up and launching beachball-sized balls through a goal 10 feet high. (Blair Ames/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)

Students in Glenelg High School's robotics club typically take off the first three Sundays of their six-week build season when it begins in January.

At least that's what Dean Sheridan tells students and their parents.

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"In a six-week, 42-day period, we're here 38-39 days and work time is four to 10 hours, per day," said Sheridan during a recent interview at Glenelg High School.

The long days and nights are embraced by the 30-40 students who make up the group each year and have led to years of success for the county's longest-running robotics club.

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Each year, students — freshmen through seniors — are assigned to build a robot capable of completing different tasks in FIRST Robotics competitions throughout the region. This year, students built a 130-pound bot capable of picking up and launching beachball-sized balls through a goal 10 feet high.

Sharon Puthumana, a junior who joined the club at the beginning of her sophomore year, said the aspect of working as a team to bring together an operational robot has been a good experience.

"I really enjoy learning about engineering, more than I had ever learned and I would have learned in all the classes they have here, because you have to be able to do more than just one thing. You have to be able to work on a lot of things together," she said.

Dean Sheridan, the club's adviser echoed Sharon's comment saying the number one thing kids learn is trust.

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"No one on our team in any given year knows how to make the entire robot work," he said. "Each team that's responsible for a component has to trust that the other members who are responsible for another component knows where to put it, what to do."

Students in the robotics club — which was formed in 2002 — have a six week build session and compete in two to three competitions each year. A weekend competition can run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

While FIRST provides a set of basic supplies for the competitions, clubs are responsible for fundraising to pay for most of their project.

Glenelg would like to run an annual budget for the program of around $20,000, which Sheridan called small by FIRST standards, adding that some teams are in the $70,000 range.

The club's primary sponsor is NASA, but members are always looking for mentoring and funding assistance, Sheridan said.

For students, it's not all about winning, according to Raymond Gerstner, a technology teacher at Glenelg and adviser for the robotics club.

"We really try to promote the FIRST gracious professionalism and 'cooperatition,' as they call it, the competition, the cooperation," said Gerstner.

Gerstner said with such a large team and only so much room to work on the Glenelg project, team members are encouraged to help other teams if they see an opportunity.

"There was one competition at George Mason this past year and five of the six robots competing, on the field at one time, we had fixed," he said.

Finally, Sheridan emphasized that students are learning engineering skills that they take with them to college and in their careers.

Some of Sheridan's former students have patents and one works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"It is working. The kids are becoming engineers and they are contributing back to their community in a very important and enlightening way," he said.

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