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Craig/Parker robotics team preps for Milwaukee competition

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Frank Schultz
February 5, 2013

— A machine flung Frisbees down a hallway at Parker High School on Monday night.

Frisbee after Frisbee jumped from the machine's launching deck and spun perfectly in the air, as if from the hand of an expert.

It was a triumph of engineering for a team of enthusiastic high school students and their adult mentors. It was just one step in a process that will consume untold hours of hard work in the next three weeks.

The activity is a part of a FIRST Robotics Team competition. FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segue, founded the organization, now at more than 3,000 high schools around the world.

Craig and Parker students are members of the group, formally called US FIRST Robotics Team No. 3962, the Rock'n' Robots.

It's hard work, and it's fun, students said.

And it could lead students to stable careers in industries that are crying out for young people who know how to use math, science, engineering and computers, said one of the team's many mentors, Parker technology teacher Tom Heiss.

Adults and students puzzled over different parts of the machine Monday. Their robot must not only throw Frisbees accurately. It must travel on wheels, feed a stack of Frisbees into the shooter and climb a monkey-bars style obstacle.

It must do these things to compete in the Ultimate Ascent competition in Milwaukee, an annual event pitting the team against more than 50 others.

That means a lot of trouble-shooting, problem-solving and fine tuning in preparation for a robotics competition later this month in Milwaukee.

Some of the other teams have a lot more resources—more mentors, and more money—and that's a challenge in itself, said mentor Dan Creed.

Just the entry fee for competing is $5,000, not to mention travel and lodging for the three-day event. Some teams have big engineering companies backing them. Some can afford to compete at several regional tournaments to hone their skills.

The Janesville team, despite support from the likes of Alcoa, Automation Systems of America, JC Penny and the sale of Kwik Trip gas cards, can't match the resources of some of the teams.

While the team's Frisbee flinger is functioning well, the team is still engineering its climbing mechanism.

"This is the biggest challenge," said Anthony Pierson, a sophomore in his second year with FIRST. "We have to figure out how to lift a 100-pound robot 8 feet into the air."

Anthony said he's been building things for years. His father, Ken, is a machinst and one of the club's mentors. Other students don't have Anthony's advantages.

"I'm here to learn as well as to help others," Anthony said.

The Janesville team—both high schools participate—is in its third year.

Creed, who helped found the Janesville team, said he did so when budget cuts led to fewer engineering classes at the local high schools.

The program now has branched out to the middle and elementary school levels. Elementary students made a Lego-based project last fall and competed in Madison, and eighth-graders are working on a machine that will pick up and throw a tennis ball, Heiss said.

Savannah Evans, a sophomore who enjoys computer programming, is on the scouting team. Her job is to figure out which of the other teams would make good partners for a part of the competition that requires three teams to work together.

Cooperation is a key part of the competition. FIRST has created a word for that: coopertition.

Savannah said she joined the group to be with her friends.

Griffin Wuttke, a senior, came late to Monday's session. He was busy rehearsing a play elsewhere at Parker. He said the team's membership cuts across social groups, but even so, members are good at working through their disagreements.

"I love this team. I really do, because of how we work together," Wuttke said.


 

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