By H. Haveman
It’s a cold and icy Tuesday evening when I arrive at the vacant building. I’ve been invited to learn more about a robot and its creators who are busily working as I open the door. Once inside, I survey the echoey space: metal folding chairs surround a table holding a mess of papers and boxes, a laptop, wires and tools, and a half-eaten bag of chips; a countdown flip chart sits off to the side showing 3 days left to work; a woman observing the activity turns to greet me and introduces me to Gallup Robo Team.
The team consists of nine students from Gallup High School and Gallup Catholic High School: Esmeralda Arreguin, Donovan Chase, Joe Farrell, John Farrell, Geo Gonzales, Jason Kezele (team captain), Breandan Moore, Peter Roberts, and Isaac Wenning. The robot they designed, appropriately named “Detour,” was created after much trial and error. Detour will compete this month at the FIRST Robotics Competition – Utah Regional at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur, in order to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of high school students and their mentors to solve a common problem all under strict rules, limited resources, and time limits. Teams are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program robots to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors. It’s as close to “real-world engineering” as a student can get.
Marisa Hutchinson, Unit Director at Gallup’s Boys and Girls Club, got the ball rolling last August by applying to the competition after attending a webinar about it. She and the other team mentors, Greg Frostad and Karl Lohmann, have an interest in the sciences and a passion for helping the youth succeed academically and in their future careers. Good relationships have also been established with several local businesses and sponsors, including JC Penney, Comcast Cable, Controlled Air & Metal, and Home Depot, which have offered financial support and expertise to the team. Hutchinson speaks highly of the FIRST program, which challenges students to communicate and collaborate in order to build a working robot almost completely from scratch.
Each of the students on Gallup Robo Team had to demonstrate their interest and ability to commit to working seven days a week, after school and on weekends, for six weeks. During the “build season,” team members spend time drawing up ideas for robot parts, working with size and weight constraints, and finally, building, assembling and programming their robot. The result of all this hard work will be a robot that can compete in a basketball-type game called “Rebound Rumble” with and against robots made by other high school teams from around the world.
Twenty-eight teams were involved in the inaugural competition in 1992 in a New Hampshire high-school gym. Today, there are 2500 teams preparing to compete with their robots in district and regional competitions throughout the US, Canada and Israel, all hoping to make it to the championship in St. Louis, April 25-28. FIRST redefines winning by rewarding teams for excellence in design, demonstrated team spirit, gracious professionalism and maturity, and the ability to overcome obstacles. Scoring the most points is a secondary goal. Winning means building partnerships that last.
That said, there are significant rewards at stake. Many colleges and universities, professional associations, and corporations offer college scholarships to high school students on FIRST teams. This is official recognition of the knowledge and technical and life skills these students have gained from participating in a FIRST competition. For 2012, supporting companies, organizations and individuals are making available over 664 individual scholarship opportunities with a total value of over $14 million!
According to the students on Gallup Robo Team, spending so much time away from friends and family has been one of the biggest challenges of participating in the competition. However, the time has not been wasted. They have consulted with local engineering professionals and been given the opportunity to learn and use sophisticated software and hardware; they’ve gained invaluable life skills and knowledge and been given the chance to earn scholarships for college.
Though the students may not realize it yet, the benefits of participating in FIRST Robotics Competition are long-term, reaching into life after high school and college. Especially in a world increasingly more dependent on technology where jobs in the sciences and engineering will need to be filled, these students are doing much to prepare themselves for the future. For now, though, the students on Gallup Robo Team are celebrating their completed robot and looking forward to seeing how Detour performs in competition.
For more information about FIRST Robotics Competition, go to usfirst.org.