Robot builders shoot for high scores

Three groups from Juneau high schools to participate in FIRST Tech Challenge

Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Three "hot shot" groups from Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas high schools are among more than 30 teams participating in the 2010 FIRST® Tech Challenge, a robotics tournament for high school students taking place this Friday and Saturday at University of Alaska's William R. Wood Campus Center. They're all competing for a chance to represent Alaska at the FIRST World Festival and FTC World Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in April.

"Hot Shot!" is the theme for this year's FTC. The challenge: Design and build a ball-shooting robot using diverse materials and multiple solutions without a single, dominant strategy, and program the robot in autonomous and tele-operated modes with motors, sensors, gears, controllers, software, Bluetooth® communications and LEGOs.

The robots compete in a 12-by-12-foot playing area. Teams first try to score the most points in six rounds of qualifying matches. Along the way, each team scouts other teams in search of partners with which to compete for the tournament awards in the final Alliance rounds.

"It's like showing up for a soccer match with half a team," said Rebecca Parks of the Juneau Economic Development Council, who has coordinated FIRST events throughout Alaska in 2009-10. "You watch the other half-teams compete and then pick the one you think will best complete your team for the final matches."

Carol May, a math teacher at Thunder Mountain High School, is coaching two FTC teams this year. One of her teams went to Fairbanks last year and placed third overall. The other team is entirely new to FTC. A strength of the veteran team is its care in documenting everything, which earned it a "Best Notebook" award last year. They're looking to repeat those honors, but they also hope their own skills and luck in picking good partners in the Alliance rounds will earn them a higher overall finish.

At JDHS, science and math teachers Ben Collman and Ricky Bass are racing against time to help their five-student team build and program their robot, fine-tuning its ball-shooting skills before the competition. This is the first year JDHS will send a team to FTC, although one student was on last year's TMHS team.

The JDHS team has been working together about seven hours a week, and that time will increase considerably in the next week.

"They have a good strategy," Collman said. "The trick will be to get the robot constructed and programmed in time for the tournament."

Until yesterday, May wasn't sure her teams' robots would be ready for Fairbanks either.

"I told them there's no point in going if the robots can't shoot," she said, "but one team's robot finally began scoring in yesterday's practice and they'll have another four-hour go at it tonight."

The team likened their recent success to receiving a yellow card on American Idol: "We're going to Fairbanks!" they shouted.

May is especially pleased with the girls on this year's TMHS teams. The boys did most of the programming last year, but this year girls are programming and even handling some of the mechanical aspects.

"These are girls who have never thought of going into engineering or computer science," May said, "but they're seeing how fun and interesting those fields can be."

The coaches thanked the local Women of the Moose organization for helping raise money for the teams by organizing and hosting a spaghetti feed and dessert auction. Looking to the future, May would like to be able to raise enough money to offer a robotics class every other year at TMHS's fall academy.

UAF is hosting FTC with funding from the UAF College of Engineering and Mines, Flint Hills Resources, BP, and the U.S. Department of Defense by way of the Juneau Economic Development Council's SpringBoard program.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 and is based in New Hampshire. The organization impacts over 200,000 students and engages nearly 60,000 adult volunteers every year, in all 50 states and around the world. FIRST augments classroom learning through hands-on programming and prototyping experience, applying real-world math and science concepts, developing problem-solving, organizational and team-building skills, and mentoring in what FIRST calls gracious professionalism.

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