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Move over, Mars Rover
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Dec 09, 2004
More Research and Academics stories
There are no textbooks in Chris Van Wolbeck’s class, no lectures, no sitting at desks. It’s all funny-looking protective goggles, computers, gears and lots of intellectual calisthenics.

Every day for one hour, 20 San Ramon Valley High School students attend his robotics class and learn what it takes to create a contraption capable of moving across a gym with the flip of a single switch and hanging from a bar by a thin steel hook. The brainstorming and mental gymnastics take place in a classroom cluttered with greasy car parts, a milling machine, a metal lathe and the well-worn cracked concrete floor found in high school shop classes everywhere.

It’s junior Lana Wilder’s favorite place to be at San Ramon Valley High.

“It’s the most interesting—it’s the class I chose,” she said, the only girl in the robotics program. “It challenges me.”

robobusiness robotEverything learned so far this year is preparing her and her classmates for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in Sacramento and San Jose in March, which is like the playoffs before April’s Super Bowl for robot nerds, a place for nimble minds to shine. Last year was the first time San Ramon Valley High competed in the regionals, and its 130 pound robot “Seabiscuit,” which looked a little like a dune buggy stuffed with a rat’s nest of wires, placed second out of 46 team entries.

This year’s students have spent the fall improving Seabiscuit, entering a couple of exhibitions and building small, computer-programmed robots out of those timeless toys, Legos. It’s all in anticipation of the frantic six-week stretch beginning early next month when they will design and build, from scratch, a new robot for the big competition.

But there’s only so much they can do at the moment. Each competition is different, and the ground rules won’t be announced until after the New Year.

Last time around, the robot had to move across a playing field on its own—no remote controls allowed, just computer programming—and knock down a red, rubber ball perched atop a pole. Students, using remote controls this time, then had to maneuver it to shove balls around on a field, climb a 6-inch step and hang from a metal bar 10 feet off the ground. The FIRST competition provides a number of parts each team must use in building its robot, and then it’s all about imagination.

“If you come up with an idea,” said senior Yahya Fahimuddin, “you have to make it happen.”

Senior David Newell came to the rescue one day with an extra long tree trimmer to help build the robot’s arm. Others skirted problems such as how to shove balls without running them over by using plastic tubing and Plexiglas.

And really smart people from the community have also pitched in. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Eugene Brooks lent his mental talents last year, as did chemical engineer Robin Fall.

Friday Van Wolbeck’s students spent the hour Friday trying to get their Lego robots to move on their own through a small obstacle course and stop in the middle of a square taped off on the floor. One performed flawlessly, while others nearly made it, and one veered off course completely. Those with recalcitrant robots went to computers along a back wall to do a little reprogramming.

Junior Jonathan Goldblatt plans to take a welding class in Berkeley during the winter break, in part to give his team a boost. The students know basic welding, but he wants to learn more advanced techniques so his team can fuse aluminium to create lighter weight parts that won’t require heavy nuts and bolts.

The robotics class is a huge commitment in other ways: the six-week building period requires the students to surrender their Saturdays and work after school until 8 p.m. Goldblatt will work that all around a busy class schedule of biology and algebra and advanced placement classes that include chemistry, English and history.

The hardest part so far has been raising money to attend competitions. A cookie dough sale, donations from Adelle’s Sausage and parent organizations have helped the class raise $7,000 of the $15,000 it needs.

Students are holding a car wash today and a barbecue next week. They even went door to door at the Bishop Ranch complex asking big companies for help and got, as Goldblatt put it, “a whole lot of nothing.”

Some of the private schools the team will go up against have deep resources. Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose has enough money for expensive multiple spare parts for its robot plus a complete machine shop in a trailer for making duplicates on the spot during competitions.

But even without such luxuries, San Ramon Valley is still planning on winning—no matter how much time or fund raising it takes.

“I hate to say this—it sounds cheesy,” Goldblatt said. “By taking this class we take on a huge responsibility. We’re submitting ourselves to Robot.”

Copyright 2004 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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