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The Chantilly Academy Robotics Team Gears Up

When students from The Chantilly Academy's robotics team participate March 4-5 in the 2005 FIRST Robotics Competition in Richmond, it will be the culmination of countless hours of hard work. And the students are enjoying every minute.

"FROM A little electrical wire to the whole robot, this is just an awesome experience," said Imad Arain, 17, one of the team managers. "I'm proud to be a part of the team."

More than 60 teams from throughout the U.S., plus Brazil, Canada and the United Kingdom will converge on Virginia Commonwealth University for the event. It's sponsored by both VCU and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Students have created robots that will battle each other in a giant game of tic-tac-toe. Then eligible teams will advance to the national championship, April 21-23, in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. This is The Chantilly Academy's fifth year participating. Three years ago, it finished eighth out of 66 teams.

At least 10 students per day have been working Monday-Friday, 2:30-5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. And they've incorporated all their English, Math, Science and Social Studies skills, plus the knowledge they've gained in teacher Marty Rothwell's engineering physics and engineering systems classes.

"These juniors and seniors have treated it like a system, like systems engineers," said Academy Administrator Doug Wright, beaming like a proud dad. "It's kids doing everything — researching and writing a program thousands of lines long. It's incredible stuff. The thing even has to run for 15 seconds on it own, like artificial intelligence."

Wright said the students designed, machined, soldered and built it all. "It's amazing what these kids have accomplished," he said. "And they're a well-oiled team. You present them with the idea, step back and let them create."

OAK HILL'S Jerry Skene, a self-employed telecommunications consultant, takes six weeks off every year to help the students with this project. Besides helping them with the robot's design and construction, he teaches them how to use tools such as drills and drill presses and says the students learn quickly.

"The whole purpose of this project is to encourage students to continue on in science and technology," he explained. "The U.S. is losing its position as a leader. In one year, China graduates seven times more engineers than all of North and South America combined."

Skene said that's because fewer and fewer young people are going into science, technology and engineering courses. "But the robotics program gets them excited about science and technology, and they're doing extremely well," he said. "We have six weeks to conceptualize, design, build, test and ship the robot [to Richmond], so there's a tremendous time crunch."

It's his third year volunteering and, he said, "It's rewarding to see the kids come in with very little technical ability and leave six weeks later with a good appreciation of management techniques and time management." Chantilly's team was 22nd last year but, said Skene, "We have a much more advanced design this year so I think we'll do better."

It's the first year Chantilly will also go to nationals — because of financial contributions from the private sector. It costs nearly $18,000 to participate; however, Chantilly's still about $3,000 short of money needed for associated expenses.

To contribute, make checks payable to The Chantilly Academy Robotics Club and send them to The Chantilly Academy, 4201 Stringfellow Road, Chantilly, VA 20151. For more information about the club, see www.chantillyrobotics.com.

Students began building their robot, Jan. 8, but started in September giving presentations to businesses, raising money and recruiting people to help. A four-year team member, senior Drew Goralczyk was project manager.

"This year, we set up a new way of doing things," he said. "We wanted to go to the national competition so, last year, I founded a Business and Investment Club at Chantilly and we tied it into the Robotics Club. It helped us come up with the marketing plan and fund-raising."

The students also divided into six teams, each with its own area of expertise: Logistics (raising money); design; fabrication and building; assembly; electrical (building the circuits); and programming (setting the robot's movements and functions). And Goralczyk ensured that team leaders communicated with each other.

He and one of the robotics team managers, junior Imad Arain, contacted businesses to sponsor the project. Arain also recruited professionals from JMU, plus Chantilly math and science teachers, to provide technical advice. "It's not about building a robot and winning a contest," he said. "It's about sharing knowledge and gaining professionalism."

IT'S JUST his first year on the team, but you'd never know it by his own professionalism and infectious enthusiasm. He loves dealing with problems and solving them — which is what the robotics competition is all about.

"It's a real-world problem," said Arain. "We used to ask our trigonometry teachers, for example, 'When are we gonna use this function?' Well, now we are." Planning on becoming a systems engineer, he's been involved in every aspect of this project. But most of all, he stressed, "We're a team — 30 minds getting together to build this, along with the endless efforts of Mr. Skene and Mr. Rothwell."

During the competition, school teams will play each other for points. "There's just one, big tic-tac-toe board, and six robots — one per school — play one game at a time until all 60 schools have played," explained Rothwell. "They play six rounds [in each session]."

And besides constructing the robot, his students are also building models of the field pieces they'll use during the game. They're in the shape of pyramids, or tetras, that must be placed on top of other pyramids on the game board. Three placements in a row are a tic-tac-toe. And, said Rothwell, "For every PVC-pipe tetra tic-tac-toe you make, you get points."

To build the robot, he said, "FIRST gives us a box of mechanical parts — motors, gears, pulleys and chains — and we use them and add to them. The robot can't be more than 5 feet tall and 120 pounds."

All the students on the robotics team take engineering systems and engineering physics classes at The Chantilly Academy, and some belong to the Academy's Robotics Club. And all of them have done a "phenomenal" job, said Rothwell.

"In the first 15 seconds of the game, the robot has to be autonomous and have its own program and on-board sensors," he said. "It must find its tetra [playing piece] on the field and put it on top of a larger version [of a tetra]," he said.

So to enable the robot to "see" its tetra, Chantilly's students cleverly programmed it to look for the color green. They then attached a piece of green-painted Plexiglas to the tetra.

Last Thursday, Feb. 17, the robotics students were hard at work wiring their robot and connecting its circuit board to the motors. Saturday, they gave it a practice spin for fine-tuning at a competition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. And on Tuesday, Feb. 22, they shipped it to VCU for next week's event.

"It's exciting — teamwork and connecting with other people," said team member Peter Arapov, 17. "I talk between the programming team and those who fabricated the robot to make sure that changes done to the robot are reflected on its program."

DARREN ANDRE, a sophomore, is working on the robot for his second year. "I'm a driver — I help pilot the robot and will control it with a joystick," he said. "The driver who was on the team five years ago told me about it, and I came to Chantilly just so I could be on the robotics team. I love anything that has to do with electronics, mechanics or that moves — and it's a lot of fun."

He said the biggest challenge is predicting problems that could occur so they can be avoided. But overall, said Andre, "I enjoyed the whole experience of building it, working up to a goal and completing it." Arapov, too, said it was great "working with people and applying skills from math, physics and engineering to a real-life problem. That's more complex than a problem on paper."

Senior Kimberly Durant is one of five girls on the team. Last Thursday, she was busily screwing wires from the drive motors to the speed controllers that connect to the robot's computer. It's her second year on the team, and she's the chief electrician. She also likes collaborating with the others and, she said, "Getting it to all work in the end is rewarding."

Durant said her toughest challenge was figuring out "the initial layout of the electrical panel, because it's double-sided and very compact." But she liked "putting it all together because I helped plan it."

Senior Chris Thai is the design-team leader. About 15 people are on his team, and they helped develop ideas on how to build the robot. "It took us about a week to come up with the basic design," he said. "The week after, we had to change it because of structure problems."

He said the most difficult part was designing how the robot's arm would move and be lifted. The best part, said Thai, was "helping create good ideas and learning what it takes to build a robot like this." It also taught him leadership skills and allowed him to use what he'd learned in trigonometry to "figure out the angles of the wheels for the four-wheel steering."

Damien Cash, 17, is interested in "the problem-solving involved in engineering" and helped design the drive system which uses "two gearboxes — each with two motors." He said physics class helped him understand "the laws of how things move."

Junior Alex Goodman loves building things so, he said, "This is the perfect club for me. He worked on the design, assembly and electrical teams and ran the Web site. He said it was tough "designing a unique steering system — and Chris Thai did a great job." And, he added, "Making something this complicated from scratch — that works — is the most fulfilling part."

MacKenzie Rogers, 16, fabricated the parts and helped make the steering-system components. Best, she said, was "working on the robot with everyone else. I hope it does great; if not, we'll just try again."