Fayette County

Students enter robotics competition

Some mad scientists have been running amok in a classroom at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

One recent afternoon, the buzz of saws and electric drills filled the room, while computer screens flickered with mysterious, cryptic symbols, and harried workers made adjustments on a contraption that vaguely resembled an electrified grocery cart with a cannon mounted on top.

Fortunately, there was nothing to fear.

The "mad scientists" scrambling around the room were all Fayette County Public Schools students. And the weird cart they were working on was a wheeled robot that they are building for a high school robotics competition at Purdue University next month.

The 18 students from Dunbar and Henry Clay high schools are members of the first high school team from Central Kentucky ever to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is sponsored by Dean Kamen, inventor of the futuristic Segway scooter. They'll go against other high school teams from around the region.

The Lexingtonians fashioned their robot using basic parts and pieces supplied by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Each competing team, however, can throw in its own ideas and innovations.

"Under the rules, teams have six weeks to finish their robots," said John Zbrozek, a former Lexmark electrical engineer who is the Lexington team's volunteer coach. "But we lost an entire week because of the ice storm, and there were times when I didn't think we'd make it. The kids have done a fabulous job."

If the Lexington students get through the regional event at Purdue, they could qualify for a national robotics competition in Atlanta come spring. Success could mean rewards including college scholarships for participants.

But, first, there's plenty of work to do.

The students must put the finishing touches on their "bot," test it, work out any bugs, then get the machine crated up and ready for shipment to Purdue by Tuesday. The pressure is on.

On Monday afternoon, Dunbar's Jonathon Chambers and Jeremiah Barnes, both 15, were bent over a computer screen, struggling to craft some software to control the robot's video camera, which will transmit live pictures to the student "driver." Jeremiah said they wanted to fix things so that the push of a single button would aim the camera at some preset point.

"But it's turning out to be harder than it should be," Jonathon said.

Nearby, Abby Omlor, 15, a freshman from Henry Clay, and Arunita Kar, 15, a Dunbar sophomore, prepared identifying numbers to go on the side of the robot. Like many of the other team members, they're interested in science or engineering careers.

"I like building stuff," Abby said. "And this has been a real learning experience, because many of the people here had never used power tools before. Now, most of us can."

Arunita said being on the team is rewarding in many ways.

"I was most excited when I heard that we were going to be the first team from Central Kentucky," she said.

Fort Thomas Highlands High School in Northern Kentucky previously has sent teams to the FIRST competition. But Lexington had never been represented.

Yohanna Hanna, 18, a Dunbar senior, arrived late, wearing a suit and tie, but he quickly got to work on the robot. He explained that he'd just come from an interview with a representative from Yale University, where he hopes to go to school next fall.

"These are all bright kids," said Beverly Smith, facilitator for Dunbar's Math, Science and Technology Center.

"They're using concepts that they have learned in math and sciences classes, but they are able to extend their knowledge through the hands-on process of planning and building a robot for competition. Most people don't get this kind of experience until they enter the world of work."

That pretty much sums up the idea behind the FIRST organization, which Kamen founded in 1989 to foster an appreciation of science and technology in young people. Based in Manchester, N.H., the non-profit organization develops various kinds of technology competitions for children starting as young as age 6.

Smith said the competition at Purdue will be "something like the atmosphere at Rupp Arena, with kids whooping and cheering. Except they'll be cheering for robots."

The event will be a bit like a cross between soccer, basketball and field hockey, with a little demolition derby thrown in, Zbrozek said.

Robots square off on a slippery, 27-foot by 54-foot playing surface intended to suggest a moon crater. Each robot will have three or four drivers, backed by other team members serving as "mission specialists."

The basic idea is to score points by having your robot fire plastic spheres — that's where the top-mounted "cannon" comes in — while keeping other competitors from scoring. Mission specialists can help by tossing spheres.

"There'll be a lot of sliding and colliding going on," Zbrozek said. "The trick is just to have your robot survive.

"But win or lose, the kids will remember this for the rest of their lives."