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Young robot warriors: South Jeffco teen leads class in building a battle-ready robot

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By AJ Vicens

Chris Valdovino teaches a class on how to create a killer robot.

A robot designed to kill other robots, that is.

Valdovino, 16, lives in South Jeffco and grew up in the area. He and other students at the Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood have created a 120-pound robot that will be in a competition April 20-26 in Mare Island, Calif.

"We're not scared," Valdovino said — though he's never built a combat robot and got the idea by watching old episodes of "BattleBots," a now-defunct television show featuring robot-on-robot violence.

Valdovino teaches the class as part of a program in which older students earn school credit by leading younger students in studying various topics.

And for Valdovino, that credit has not come without a tangible cost.

"It' s a very painful thing," Valdovino said April 16 in the workshop at his school. "I've been getting cuts and bruises."

The group of 11 students have been working on their remote-controlled robot for more than three months. They named it "Dr. Faustus," after the fictional character who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge. The students have built everything from the machine's electrical system to its weapons, which consist of a fixed spike on the back and a rotating foot-long metal bar with sharpened edges on the front. The robot can spin and travel at just over 8 mph.

"We've got a shot," said Logan Gillette, a 13-year-old student. "I'm not going to go anywhere beyond that. We've got a chance."

Dale Shisler, the faculty adviser for the class, answers questions with his own questions, prodding the students to reach the right answers on their own.

"I'm ecstatic they got this done," Shisler said, as he watched Valdovino and the other students assemble the final pieces of the robot before testing it. "It's great to watch them go through it."

Gee Gates, Valdovino's co-teacher, said he enjoys getting his hands dirty.

"I like welding, and cutting the metal," said Gates, 15. "I like putting it together and using the tools."

Valdovino and Gates have worked through several problems, including replacing the robot's motor, which literally blew up the day before they were planning to ship it to California. They've had to raise money so the class can travel to the competition. They sold T-shirts and hosted a video game night at the school to keep costs relatively low; each student has paid $300 for the trip, which will include two adult chaperones.

"They keep telling us that we're learning so much," Valdovino said of his teachers and Shisler. "And they're also telling us that we suck at planning," he added with a laugh, as he and Gates have struggled to coordinate a class that includes travel.

"But it's been pretty stressful and fun," Valdovino said. "I'm doing things I've never done, and it's been great. It's a whole new experience for Gee and I."

Valdovino plays it cool when asked if he's entering the competition with hopes of victory.

"If we don't win, oh well," Valdovino said. "It was a fun class."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.