Robotics Club gears for a new challenge

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By Matt Gunn

With its new six-week season under way, the South Jeffco Robotics Club is finding increased experience and the addition of more mentors a benefit as it builds a new machine for competition.

The South Jeffco team is most spirited in the early months of a new year as it participates in FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The students, from a handful of area high schools, are again tasked with creating a robot to tackle a specific set of challenges.

Last year’s effort, a machine designed to lift inflatable rings onto a free-swinging rack, did nothing if not prepare the team for this year. The goal of the 2008 FIRST Robotics Challenge, dubbed FIRST Overdrive, is to knock a large inflated ball off a rack, race it around a track, and then attempt to return the ball to the overhead rack.

“To me, that would be the biggest challenge,” said Skip Konst, a team mentor, “is that they’ve never seen what has to be done.”

What the robot will eventually look like is up to the team. As long as it is within specific size and weight specifications, the teams are essentially free to design what they want.

Last year’s experience could help the South Jeffco Robotics Club with some of its design techniques and the control scheme.

“But the robot itself will be completely different,” said Bill Schmidt, team founder and Dakota Ridge technology teacher.

An incentive for participation, beyond building a fully functional robot, is that FIRST awards more than $9 million in scholarships at the end of the year. The high school students on South Jeffco’s team, who hail from Dakota Ridge, Chatfield Senior High, Mullen High School and St. Mary’s Academy, among others, also receive hands-on training in engineering.

“We graduated seven from our class last year,” Schmidt said, “five of which went into engineering schools, with the other two going into the armed forces.”

Students in the robotics club have adults in related fields and 10 mentors from the Colorado School of Mines to help guide them. An estimated 600,000 combined hours represent the time devoted by students, mentors and teachers by the time regional competition begins in late February.

“I just had a good time last year,” said Daniel Bulfer, a Mines freshman who previously competed with his high school in Wyoming. “It makes it a lot easier to come back if you’re having fun.”

When the team ships its final product prior to regional competition, each student member will have contributed to some aspect of the robot project. Though only two operators are allowed, there is an opportunity for all team members to make an impact.

“This year I’m working on the website,” said Travis Bybee, a Dakota Ridge junior in his third year on the team. “I’ve worked on programming before.”

Most seem to think FIRST Overdrive poses a similar level of challenge as in previous years. One of this year’s wrinkles is the “NASCAR” format, which means robots will be turning only left.

“We think it’s almost easier to some extent,” Schmidt said. “But, again, it’s because we have more experience.”

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.