Robotics team wired

Within six weeks, Woodlawn High School's Technowarriors tested prototypes, selected a design and constructed their 5-foot-tall robot.

Now they're working the phones to overcome the last obstacle to participating in the FIRST Robotics Championship: finding the money to get there.


"It's the biggest reward we can have for all the time we've put into building the robot," said sophomore team member Kwami Williams.

The team lost a sponsor two weeks ago. As a result, they're struggling to raise at least $7,000 by Thursday to travel to Atlanta and prove themselves among more than 340 teams from the United States and other countries.


Other teams - including one from Harford Technical High School, Brooklandville's Park School and Aberdeen and Loyola high schools and Hereford Middle School - also are trying to raise money to go to the competition.

Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the Segway transporter, created FIRST, or For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology, more than 10 years ago to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career.

This year's theme is "Aim High." Students, working with professional engineers as mentors, designed and built robots that toss balls through a target and dunk them into goals.

The robots must meet strict engineering requirements, said John Murdoch, co-chairman of the Chesapeake regional committee. According to specifications on the FIRST Web site, they must weigh no more than 120 pounds. Each team receives a kit with basic parts, but most purchase more materials, he said.

"They're trying to get students realizing what real workplace nature is, particularly if you're competing on government contracts or whatever," Murdoch said.

The cost of the competition, to be held this month, includes the price of the kit as well as the space in the Georgia Dome, said FIRST spokesman Ken Freitas.

One of the competition's founders describes the competition as "a microcosm of the real engineering experience," Freitas said. Students are given a challenge with not enough time, not enough money and not enough information. They learn from solving engineering, business and team dynamics problems.

But Murdoch said it can be more difficult for schools located farther away from industry locations to find sponsors and mentors.


A NASA grant covered most of the $11,000 registration fee for Woodlawn, said Teresa Harper, an anatomy and physiology teacher who leads the team.

The Technowarriors constructed the robot within six weeks, as required by the contest guidelines. They earned a good sportsmanship award at the Chesapeake regional competition last month, which enabled them to qualify for the Atlanta trip.

Judges recognized how team members helped their competitors even during the event itself, Harper said.

"They exemplify what great character should be," she said.

Woodlawn's robot, named Triple Threat because it can shoot, dunk and pick up balls, was shipped to the competition directly from the Chesapeake regional event. Harper said the team is trying to raise money so 22 team members can make it there as well.

William Jackson, a senior, designed the launching mechanism that tosses the balls through the target. For him, seeing the competition through to the end is "mandatory."


His teammate Kwami said he and other students worked 12 to 15 hours on weekends designing the chassis, a hopper to collect balls and other elements of the robot.

The competition is a chance to gain recognition for the students' efforts, said sophomore Clarence Ankrah.

"It pays off for the hard work you've done throughout the year," he said.