These athletes practice every day after school until about 7 p.m., go home, do several hours of homework, get up the next day and do it again.
During a weeklong mini-camp before the season began, seniors schooled the new kids on basic skills. To keep their edge, they're back at work from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday
These intellectual athletes — members of Team Planetary Drive, a robotics-building team at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School — put in long hours preparing for competition and raising money for their "build season," which is January to March.
The Dunbar team is one of a handful in the state and the only one in Fayette County.
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On a recent Friday night, the whir of power tools was only slightly louder than the forceful clacking on computer keyboards and the low buzz of the robotic contraption rolling across the floor of the library-turned-workroom.
The team has about 50 consistently active members, said Madison Hopkins, team president. Madison, a senior, said the team was divided into working groups such as electrical, programming and marketing.
It takes about $10,000 to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, she said.
Melanie Timmers, a science teacher at Dunbar and the team's faculty sponsor, said the group received a $5,000 sponsorship this year from the Army ROTC; the rest will come from team dues, smaller donations and things like bake sales.
The basic kit to produce the robot is about $5,000, she said, and it takes another $5,000 for additional equipment and to help the team get to the regional competition, which will be in Peoria, Ill., next month. For many of the students, Timmers said, it is the first time they have had a hands-on experience with building or programming something.
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The competition is run through a nonprofit created by inventor Dean Kamen, most widely known as inventor of the Segway.
Each year, each team must build a robot to complete the same task. This year the task is stacking large plastic bins.
That seems simple enough, but the group has created three prototypes to test various options. They've also created a plywood version of the "test field" that will be used in the competition. Fueled by Sprite, pretzels and Doritos they work and rework at getting the robot — a square platform, on wheels, covered with lights and wires — to execute the task.
Senior Monon Rahmen is part of the team focusing on marketing. A filmmaker and photographer, he is documenting the group's work. He said he being part of the team allows him to meld his passion for technology and the arts.
Also known as Team 2856, it has a legacy of technical success, including being a regional finalist in 2010. The group also has succeeded in making a name for itself, winning the Spirit Award in 2013 and 2014. They've been known, as a group, to do a mean Chicken Dance.
Madison said the sense of being a part of the team spreads into the classroom and beyond. Friendships are formed, and it's not unusual for former team members to come back and visit during college breaks.
Timmers, who will be spending her birthday this year in Peoria for the competition, said she was impressed with the focus and dedication of the students and the community mentors who sometimes volunteer several evenings a week during build season.
Noah Gawlik, a Lexmark engineer, was helping Friday with programming. He comes three or four nights a week, sometimes bringing his 6-year-old son. Gawlik said it was fun to see teens so excited about science and robotics. He sees it as an honor to help them excel at the competition, and he urged the community to support their efforts.
The kids, he noted, not only do the work, they raise the money. "This is a school activity but not a school-sponsored activity," he said.