Robots to the Rescue

Mike Clary is a Times staff writer who last wrote about the Disney Institute for the magazine

The brothers Unruh and the Beach 'Bot II crew are ready to rumble. In early rounds, their robot prevailed in electrifying matches against teams of pole-grabbers, platform-sitters and floppy flippers, some sponsored by big corporations with even bigger reputations. Better yet, these 14 underfunded students from Hope Chapel Academy in Hermosa Beach laid a gear-grinding whuppin' on their Southern California rival, Hawthorne High.

Now, heading into middle rounds, the confidence of team No. 330--motto: "B2 Beats U!"--is rising as fast as the Orlando temperature. True, a faulty circuit in the remote control panel had sparked anxiety earlier, but back in the pit, one of the team's engineer-dads had quickly replaced the balky unit with a spare, and now the four-wheeled robot is running like the well-oiled machine it is, and the techno-teens seem on track to their goal: an upset victory in the fifth national robotics championship at Disney's Epcot.

The three-day gathering of 207 robots, more than 10,000 students, parents and teachers from across the country and some of America's most prominent corporate executives and engineers began in April, just three days after a pair of disaffected Colorado high-schoolers killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves in a spasm of mindless violence. This annual festival of inventiveness and enthusiasm was not designed as an antidote to the Columbine High School tragedy. But it is.

"We'll be a contender," predicts Michael Unruh, 17, who, with his 15-year-old brother, Nicholas, operates the Hope Chapel robot's dual remote controls with a deftness honed during thousands of hours playing Nintendo.

In its rookie appearance here last year, the team from the private Pentecostal Hope Chapel Academy finished mid-pack. This year it won the Southern California regional tournament with its battery-powered warrior and finished fourth in the West Coast regional in Moffett Field, Calif. Michael Unruh explains the turnaround: "Last year, we built the best robot we could. This year we built a robot that does what we want it to do."

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Just what the robots are supposed to do in their two-minute matches is determined each year by engineers at the nonprofit organization "FIRST" (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). If FIRST didn't concoct new games for each competition, the crack engineers who volunteer their time and talent and the major corporations that employ them would soon be building robots that make R2-D2 look like a slow-witted slacker. So the game changes, to assure that the robots do, too.

The rules of this year's game and the robot kits themselves were released in early January, just six weeks before the first qualifying competitions, which are open to any team of high school students in the United States. But the true competitors don't wait for express shipping. Hope Chapel leader Roger Harmon, 60, who retired after 32 years of testing satellites for TRW in Redondo Beach, and Chris Husmann, a Northrop Grumman engineer whose son is a member of the team, battled an East Cost snowstorm, four plane cancellations and the fatigue of a 3 a.m. arrival at the small airport in Manchester, N.H., to hear the rules of this year's contest. Versed, they gathered up two boxes of robot parts and flew home the next morning. That evening, they had their first design meeting in the school's "Robo Room."

The $4,000 robot kits are hardware surprise packages of various motors, valves, pneumatic cylinders and sensors, all theoretically capable of being powered by the enclosed 12-volt battery and operated through a programmable control system directed by digital radio signals. This year's contest is called "Double Trouble." Through a random draw, teams are paired off to compete against other duos in an intricate point-scoring contest that requires each robot to gather "floppies"--inner-tube-size pillows with Velcro centers--in a basket, climb onto a 4-inch-high platform and then lift the floppies to a height of 8 feet.

Long before the robot components arrived, the Hope Chapel kids and about a dozen engineers and advisors gathered in design groups, some responsible for locomotion, some for the electrical controls, others working on lift hydraulics. The kids took part in all the discussions and planning and also handled public relations, scheduling, sponsorship. Early in the design process, one ambitious engineer pitched a revolutionary plan in which the robot would, like a monster tarantula, extend several arms to envelop the entire platform and keep any competitors from getting close. But that proved impractical. Instead, the engineers came up with a unique drive system that propels each wheel separately, giving the robot swift maneuverability and the power to climb onto the platform with near-humanoid agility.

The challenge is complex, and adults who engineer for a living tend to slip into a conceptual hyperdrive that often has the teens struggling to keep up. "Every time I saw engineers talking together, I had to go break it up," says Harmon. "The kids have to be involved so they can learn."

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American teens' performance in science and math is notoriously lousy. One study released last year ranked U.S. seniors near the bottom compared to students in South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. No one is more alarmed by the shortage of young workers who understand physics, chemistry, calculus and computer technology than the captains of American industry. That's why GM, Motorola, Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, NASA and other business giants support FIRST with cash and the time of executives who sit on the foundation's board.

Scanning the electromechanical madness that has enveloped Epcot, Ian A. Mc-Ewan, an executive and engineer at General Motors, comments: "We are looking to create the next generation of engineers in this country, and we are seeing that this works. I don't see anyone else doing what Dean Kamen is doing."

Few outside of engineering have heard that name, but it's as familiar here at Epcot as Michael Jordan's is on a high school basketball court. Kamen is a college dropout who became a multimillionaire in his early 30s by inventing medical devices, including a portable insulin pump and a compact kidney dialysis machine. He holds more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents.

Along with overseeing his Manchester, N.H., research and development lab, Kamen is a full-time evangelist for FIRST, a foundation through which he intends to do nothing less than change America's culture. Kamen doesn't exactly want to ban sports heroes and rock stars who serve as role models for the young, but he would demote them to the marginal significance he says they warrant. Then he'll thrust scientists onto those empty pedestals.

Today, Kamen, 48, wanders the robotics competition in his everyday garb--work shirt, blue jeans and boots--first-naming corporate big-shots and buttonholing reporters.

"We had 1.3 million technical jobs that went unfilled in this country last year because there were no people who could do them," the inventor begins. "We have a crisis in our schools. While we spend $600 billion a year on education in grades K through 12, we're near the bottom of the list in education proficiency compared to other industrialized nations. So more money is not the answer."

Kamen picks up a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar, strips the paper and starts gnawing at a big ear. "I'm not saying that every kid needs to be a scientist or an engineer," he continues. "But they need to develop their minds, which is the muscle most likely to expand through exercise. To do that, we need to stop worshiping nonsense, distractions and false heroes--the boxer who bites off the ear of an opponent and all these other multimillionaire sports stars.

"You get what you celebrate, and in this culture we don't celebrate scientists. Kids can't name a scientist. So I went to corporate America, the same big corporations that have factories in neighborhoods where people are afraid to walk at night, and I said, 'Give kids the same incentive to emulate scientists as they do sports stars. Reach those kids who dream of the Super Bowl but not superconductors. Make robotics the cool sport of choice, the NCAA of smarts.' "

"I love sports," Kamen says. "I have my own softball field. But I love sports as a distraction, not as a fixation. In most places, people are willing to work harder to be smarter. Here, our advertisers say, 'Life is short--play hard.' It should be, 'Life is short--work hard.' "

Which is not to say that Kamen--whose home boasts a state-of-the-art machine shop, secret passageways and an attached helicopter hangar--has ever said that work can't be fun.

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A science and engineering competition may sound like a magnet for techno-geeks and computer nerds. It isn't. Jocks outfitted in a blinding array of wildly colored T-shirts and funny hats coexist with physics club members in a scene that seems more superheated pep rally than science fair. Over acres of carpeted Disney parking lot and inside huge air-conditioned tents, kids, parents and teachers, representing entrants from 30 states (including 17 from California) trade team buttons, dance to Lauryn Hill and the Village People, eat burritos, learn yo-yo tricks, exchange high-fives and e-mail addresses, and meet again and again on stages called Einstein and Newton to pit their gladiator machines against others'. Teams come with cheerleaders, costumed mascots (Hawthorne High puts a student in a vulture suit) and cool nicknames such as Robodawg, the Baxter Bomb Squad and the Techno Ticks from (where else?) Old Lyme, Conn.

Most of the 190 kids who attend Hope Chapel are middle-class whites from two-parent homes. College is a given. But last year the school built its robot in partnership with Haw-thorne High, a big, blue-collar South Bay school. Robotics at Hawthorne does not yet have quite the cachet as football or basketball, but there is a waiting list to get onto the team, which met daily in shop teacher Steve Ferron's 7 a.m. elective class. And already there are success stories. "I was wondering where my life was going before I got involved in this," said senior Peter Malati, 17, a bellman's son who has already begun taking engineering classes at El Camino College. "I think I've become a little wiser. I can anticipate problems now--you know, figure out what will work, see the consequences."

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Near the end of round three, Nicholas Unruh, who controls Hope Chapel's four-wheeled robot's movements, uses a perfect, if unintentional, NBA-style pick set by an opponent's stalled machine, driving the Beach 'Bot II right to the edge of the platform. Using his separate controls, brother Michael takes over, lifting the front wheels and nudging the lawnmower-sized robot up, claiming the territory and tripling the team's score. All that stands between the Hope Chapel crew and another whopping point total is for Michael to raise the Beach 'Bot's floppy-filled basket 8 feet. But as the robot's multi-section mast begins to unfold like an awakening crane, an opponent robot slams it. The machine rocks in a top-heavy sway.

"Oh, no! Oh, no!' screams junior Annette Hart, 15, from the edge of the stage, where the team's 35-person cheering section looks on beneath their straw hats. Advisor Husmann goes over the stress tolerances in his head, recalling his precise computer modeling. "It should hold," he mutters.

The robot teeters. The floppies shift. The entire machine, along with the team's hopes for an upset victory, seems to hang on invisible waves of central Florida heat. But the Unruh brothers hold steady at the controls, positioning the basket back and letting the Beach 'Bot II regain its footing. As the whistle blows, the brothers thrust their arms to the heavens in triumph and the crowd below erupts in cheers.

Alas, in the end they lack the total score needed to make the finals. Disappointed, they quickly put the loss in perspective. They have visited all the Disney theme parks, enjoyed a raucous game of post-midnight putt-putt golf, caught seven toads outside their hotel room and learned to function on as little as three hours of sleep a night.

Hope's Joe Ross, 17, leaves Epcot with his decision to study engineering cemented by the competition and by the time he spent hanging out with "some of the smartest kids in the country."

That brain power often comes from unexpected quarters. Jason Morrella, a 28-year-old English teacher, brought two robots and a team of eight kids from two last-chance public schools in San Jose. Among his Bay Bombers are an unwed mother and a former gang member who's undergone laser surgery to have tattoos removed. "This is not an intelligence thing," says Morrella. "These kids have never done well because they never thought they would do well." Yet, at Epcot, their teams score so high that the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field offers four members, including the former gangbanger, summer jobs--and, perhaps, a chance to climb onto those pedestals that scientists and engineers may one day occupy.

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