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Roving Robots

Vienna high schools prepare for robotics competition.

Although many of their classmates might have still been in bed on that bright morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, several students at Oakton High School were buzzing from doughnuts and caffeine as they were working on the robot they named "Ohmwrecker," after the measurement unit. They had only a few days left to finish their robot before it would have to go to Richmond.

Oakton High School is one of several schools in the area sending its students to the 2004 FIRST Robotics Competition at Virginia Commonwealth University. An annual event to be held in Richmond on March 4-6, the competition brings 63 high schools from nine states together to compete in designing a robot to perform a specific challenge every year.

Produced by the nonprofit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the regional competition in Richmond will also feature speakers from its sponsors, NASA and Virginia Commonwealth University.

In addition to Oakton High School, Vienna's James Madison High School is also sending a robot to Richmond.

"It's one of the few activities where students can work on a large-scale project like this," said Toss Cline, an engineering and architecture teacher who is overseeing Madison's entry. "It's open-ended problem-solving that they don't get in a lot of classroom work."

BOTH MADISON and Oakton have been working since Jan. 10 on constructing their robots. Because it's an extracurricular activity, students have spent countless hours in the evenings and on weekends perfecting their robots' design and execution.

Each team must construct a robot that can be maneuvered autonomously and by remote control. This year's challenge entails timed matches in which the robot must autonomously pick up and deposit a larger ball into a bin. Then it must gather smaller balls together, with students throwing the balls into a bin. Toward the end of the challenge, if the robot can lift itself up onto a pole, the team wins 50 extra points.

At Oakton, the strategy was to divide the 70 students working on the robot into teams. Some would be responsible for designing the robot's autonomous infrared sending and line tracking needed for the robot's autonomous mode, while other teams created two competing designs concentrating on particular aspects of the challenge.

"Learning stuff in a classroom is nice, but it doesn't explain what it takes to work in a team," said Oakton senior Ashok Kumar, who was the student leader for Oakton's project. Kumar added that the short time frame students had in completing the project added to students' stress.

Another dimension of the competition was that the wider community was invited to participate, as well. Parents of students lent their expertise, while local businesses provided mentors and financial backing for the projects.

The community "sees it as such an authentic, hands-on learning experience," said Oakton physics teacher Steve Scholla.

AMONG THE parent/student teams building the robot at Oakton were the Parkers.

"I'm just really happy that I got to learn how to build things," said Oakton senior Kristin Parker. Besides helping to build robot parts, Kristin Parker's main job would be to explain the robot's components to the judges.

Her father, Bob Parker, a computer science researcher for the University of Southern California, was nearby talking with students in the autonomy subgroup. It was his first time working with high-school students.

"The kids, in general, are really motivated. It's been wonderful to see their enthusiasm. They're very creative," said Bob Parker.

Bob Parker explained that parents' roles include overseeing general direction and having responsibility for individual subsystems.

"The whole idea is for kids to get as much as experience as possible," Bob Parker said.

Like their neighbors across Chain Bridge Road, students at Madison used pneumatic controls for their robot. Their fourth entry to this robotics competition features four-wheel drive, limited slip differential, and a lift mechanism modeled after their first robot.

Cline said the 35 students involved have been meeting together six days a week from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for the past five weeks. Parents and mentors from the engineering company Raytheon have also come in to help.

"It wouldn't be possible without the support of our volunteers and parents. We wouldn't be able to do it without Raytheon," Cline said.

He said the competition provides students and the wider community with tangible results to concepts learned in the classroom.

"Hopefully, this [competition] will turn kids on to see a direct application to math and science," Cline said.

Nearby, James Orsinger, a volunteer parent, was testing the robot's lift mechanism with a student, in the school hallway.

"Here's something where the engineering skills and computer skills are getting the recognition they don't get anywhere," Orsinger said.

The Madison team hopes that its robot will be among the winners competing in the national competition in Atlanta in April. But whatever the outcome, those involved said the process is just as valuable.

"I think the best part is when you go to the competition and you see 60 different robots," said Madison junior Chris Eckert. "There are a myriad of different concepts. It's quite incredible when you get there."