Les Wall was channel-surfing last summer when he stumbled on a national robotics contest for engineering firms and high school students.
Wall never dreamed that a few months later his small engineering company would be building a robot to compete with the likes of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. And a group of students at Edmondson-Westside Senior High School would never have believed that they would be heading to New Jersey and Florida for a national competition.
Now, they are underdogs united.
"I can't believe [Wall] chose our school, and I think it's an honor they chose our school," senior Eboni Trusty said as she $l constructed the body of the robot. "It puts our school on the map and lets everyone know what we're capable of."
That's precisely the response Wall was hoping to elicit when he contacted Principal Irby Miller.
Wall is the president and chief executive officer of Systems, Technologies and Resources Inc. (STaR Inc.), a minority-owned engineering company in Lutherville, who was looking for ways to get urban youths interested in engineering.
Wall said that after researching the contest, he was scared off by the $6,000 entry fee but decided to check out a school before dropping the idea. After an enthusiastic meeting with Miller and a detailed tour of the school's high-tech facilities during the December holiday, he was sold. The Edmondson Redskins and StaR Inc. joined forces.
Team REDSTaR was born. "The real thing that sparked me was I saw the competition on TV from last year, and I thought it looked awfully suburban," Wall said as he watched Trusty sculpt the body of the robot in Edmondson's large woodworking shop. "I said, 'Wow, I know some kids who can compete in this.'
"I made the decision right there that we were going to find a school that better represented that nonsuburban look."
The 6-month-old company and the urban high school are devoting hundreds of hours to building a robot from scratch that will compete with 158 other entries from around the country in March.
Students selected a dome-shaped design for the body of the 4-foot-high robot -- a wood structure resembling an upside-down bowl -- that will be covered with fiberglass. The robot will have a tripod-like base and telescoping arms that can stretch about 4 feet and are driven by motors used for power windows in cars.
Two wheels will be installed under the dome. The robot will be able to move in all directions and turn on a dime using motors like those for power drills and car seats.
All competing schools were given the same products for the robots from corporate sponsors.
Miller saw the contest as an opportunity to instill pride, confidence and school spirit while knocking down stereotypes.
"I'm very excited about this, very excited," Miller said. "This is probably the best thing to take place at this school that I can remember. The entire school is very enthusiastic about the whole thing."
Miller showed a copy of the ESPN show to a group of 75 students in January, and eventually a dedicated group of 10 emerged. Those students, along with 10 STaR Inc. engineers and five Edmondson teachers, are spending about 10 hours after school each week and entire Saturdays and Sundays designing and constructing the robot.
Reputation and fame are at stake for STaR Inc. The 18-member firm could gain respect and national attention by faring well in the competition.
Its commitment is substantial. It had to be. The team that won last year had 40 students, 30 engineers and 10 to 15 faculty members.
"It's been a lot of sleepless nights and blown weekends," StaR Inc. project engineer Alex Salvi said jokingly. "No, it's fun. I enjoy it a lot. It's a great feeling to see all the kids get into what I do in real life."
In the contest, the robot will be maneuvered in a 100-square-foot arena by remote control and joysticks to put inner tubes on an apparatus with projecting arms. Teams score points for each tube they hang while avoiding and blocking opposing robots.
The Edmondson team built a mock playing field and scoring apparatus to practice on.
Team REDSTaR will enter its robot in the regional contest at Rutgers University in New Jersey March 20 and the national competition at Disney's EPCOT Center in Orlando, Fla., April 12. The winner gets a trophy.
"I never thought we could do anything like this," said Marcus Neal, a senior electronics student. "We're actually a big part of building the robot. Normally, when you see this on TV, you think colleges can do this, not high schools. It's terrific doing what we're doing here."
Kawanda Kingwood, an Edmondson junior who did many of the design drawings, said she's especially proud because her school is one of only two competing from Maryland -- the other is in Baltimore County.
"When people think about Baltimore City public schools, they think everybody's running up and down the hallways," she said while displaying her drawings in the school's computer lab. "Well, Edmondson's not like that. We're civilized children just like everybody else in the county."
The complexities of the project would thwart most high school students, said Demetri Stewart, a vice president at STaR Inc., but the Edmondson students took to it quickly. The career technology curriculum prepared the students well, he said.
"We were really amazed with what they're able to do," Stewart said. "You come into an inner-city high school, and you think, well. But these are very well-disciplined kids that have accomplished a lot of technical expertise at a young age."
Pub Date: 2/08/97