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Robotics Team Opens Paths to Engineering

NASA-sponsored student organization works to instill engineering appreciation.

Gesturing towards the list of engineering topics printed on the movable dry-erase board at the front of the room, 17-year-old Herndon High School senior Sean Lavery, co-captain of the school’s Robotics Team, runs down the possible areas of focus for the more than 50 students in attendance.

"There’s mobility, this is what will make [the robot] move," Sean Lavery said. "So anyone interested in wheels, things like that, this will be for you."

Sitting across the room, his father, Dave Lavery, a NASA program manager who is also the lead engineer for the students, tests the statement his son just made. "Are you sure it has to be wheels?" he asks, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

"OK, we can talk about an on-board motor for a hovercraft," his son retorts, smiling, the crowd’s laughter growing louder.

Dave Lavery smiles and puts his arms behind his head, leaning back in his chair. "Just keep your options open that’s all I’m trying to say."

THE TWO WERE just some of the student and teacher representatives hosting the third meeting of the Herndon High School Robotics Club, a 12-year-old organization that gives students from a variety of backgrounds the opportunity to learn about such topics as design, engineering and computer animation in the construction of robots for state-wide competition.

Despite its scientific theme, it’s anything but nerdy, Dave Lavery said.

"If anything, we want these students to learn that it’s not just the geeky guy in the white coat who is the engineer," Dave Lavery said. "I’ve seen some competitions that will get to be just as exciting and have the same pumped-up atmosphere as a Final Four [college basketball] game."

STUDENTS WHO ARE interested in everything from conceptual design down to computer animation can get a chance to lend support to the team and learn essential skills for technical careers.

For Kate Joder, a 15-year-old sophomore, participation in the Robotics Club is about gaining engineering experience and also about getting adjusted to a new school.

"It’s a good way for me to get a better knowledge of technology and learn how to program things," Joder said. "I’ve always done different stuff like this, so I wanted to get involved and see what other kind of people there were out there who like to do things like this too."

For 15-year-old sophomore Bill Brady, the Robotics Club is an outlet for career-learning while still at the high school level.

"I really want to do video game programming, so this gives me an opportunity to learn some things like rendering, where you show the motions of an object on the screen," Brady said. "It helps to give me an idea of how things work and move me along to bigger stuff hopefully in the future."

AND FUTURE CAREERS may be greatest boon of the program, said Dave Lavery.

He helped convince NASA to sponsor the program back in the mid-1990s partly as a way of finding future engineers, he said. The government organization is now the largest sponsor of Robotics Teams in the country, donating to about 200 schools.

"The kids are excited because they get to work with us, but we’re also excited because we get to see some of the great engineering talent there is out there," Dave Lavery said. "We see it as an early form of human resources."

While the majority of students don’t end up starting down career paths with NASA or even in the field of engineering, Dave Lavery said that it is worthwhile for them to have a clear understanding of what engineering is and how it functions in society.

THE STUDENTS WHO were in attendance at the Robotics Team meeting, if they continue on with the group, will spend 10 weeks designing and building a robot for regional competition. For final completion, the students must sketch out a conceptual design, furnish a computer animation of what the finished product will look like and complete a fully-functioning robot.

The intensive hands-on approach to every aspect of the project is what students most benefit from, Dave Lavery said, and it is most easily seen in their energy levels.

"The kids get excited about what they’re doing and that’s infectious, and everyone gets enthusiastic to work on these projects," Lavery said. "When you get out there and you get your hands into it, that’s when that creative energy really gets going."

"It’s just so great to see all these young, brilliant minds at work."