Robot love

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February 27, 2012
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
HOLLAND — Convincing a teenager to stay after school can be a hard sell. But at Edison High School, the Robotics Club just wrapped up a six-week stretch meeting every day after class to build a robot from scratch. Engineers from Northeast-based Graco also worked after-hours every day, preparing the students for the national competition this spring.

The club has become increasingly popular, prompting the school to add a new robotics class this year.

“[Robotics is] really big in schools right now,” said robotics advisor Brenton Tuominen, a calculus teacher. “I think kids learn more doing this than in most classrooms, because it’s hands-on, and we’re getting engineers in to mentor them.”

“I like hands-on things,” said sophomore Ramon Angeles, when asked why he joined the club. “I think I might go into engineering, I don’t know.
It’s a possibility.”

At a recent Robotics Club meeting, students snacked on granola bars and reworked the robot while others filtered in from football tryouts. They were working to brace a robot frame they built and designed themselves. The robot will pull basketballs up a ramp and launch them toward hoops, like a pitching machine. Student Ahmed Ali grabbed a couple of joysticks to take the robot for a test-run, explaining that the system was connected to the computer via a wireless connection.

“It’s like playing a video game,” the students explained to a girl who was nervous about controlling the fast-moving robot for the first time. She caught on to the controls quickly, after a couple of small crashes.

“A lot of the kids don’t really have any experience with mechanical stuff,” said robotics advisor Jonathan Linne, who also teaches social studies. “So what they know about working with a screwdriver they get through here.”

He said the students make huge strides in the course of a year or two.

“These same people are taking apart parts of the robot to fix something that’s broken,” he said. “They are not looking to us for advice on how to do it — they’ve got it.”

“It’s kind of like knowing a car. If you know your car, you can work on it yourself,” Tuominen said.

Last year’s robot used difficult programming language and the latest rare earth motors and encoders. Specially-designed wheels moved the robot in four directions. A claw on the robot picked up inner-tubes, and a mini-bot was deployed at the touch of a button to scale a pole, meeting goals dictated by the national competition.

The Edison team competes against 60,000 other high school students in the FIRST Robotics National Competition, with a first-round tournament at the University of Minnesota. FIRST is a nonprofit founded by Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway), and it’s designed to encourage youth interest in science and technology.

“Those are our most needed fields out there right now,” Tuominen said.

President Barack Obama has invited prior winners to the White House. He recently launched a campaign to improve student participation and performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The U.S. is lacking in those subjects — a 2006 international study ranked American students’ science literacy just 21st out of 30 developed countries, and 25th out of 30 in math literacy.

You wouldn’t know it during the national tournament — the competition is fierce. It draws 2,400 teams, with some clubs numbering 100 students apiece. Tuominen said he’s seen clubs so large that one member’s sole job was to tweet about the progress.

Consequently, Graco’s local sponsorship of the Robotics Club is an important boost for the Edison team. (Graco’s CEO is an Edison alum.) Graco donates money toward enhancing the robot, and seven of its engineers take turns advising after school.

“I think it’s probably more fun for the kids,” joked Benjamin Godding, a Graco electrical engineer. “I’d like to be in there ... I just kind of stand back and answer any questions I can help with. They seem to have a pretty good handle on it; I don’t have to do a whole lot.”

He said the robotics challenge is a nice training ground for students.

“This is absolutely how a lot of real-world jobs are,” he said. “There are plenty of electrical engineering positions where they will say ‘I want this robotic device,’ and you take your controls and use LabVIEW to write the software.”

Tech-education teacher Cal Entinger is promoting a new Robotics Club website for students to use after graduation.

‘They can put this snapshot on their website when they apply to college,” Entinger said. “It’s a nice link and it’s something fairly unique.”

Entinger provides career education at Edison, and he said robotics is a helpful entry point for students.

“It’s tough nowadays because there are so many technical fields out there. What do you teach?”  he said. “Robotics is nice because it combines electronics, mechanics, hydraulics, mathematics and computer programming all into one.”

Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal.