Three teams of engineering-minded high schoolers have spent the better part of the school year immersed in a world of gears, gaskets and gadgetry — all with an eye to building and programming robots that can accomplish a few key tasks.
And it looks like the countless hours of concentration, problem solving and engineering know-how is paying off. Next month, two La Cañada High School teams and a third independent team of LCHS students will travel to Houston, where they’ll compete in world level robotics championships.
From April 17 to 20, some 41 students from the two high school teams and seven members of independent team Golden Gears will head to Houston to compete in two different competitions sponsored by the nonprofit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
“There’s a different theme every year. The whole theme for all the programs this year is space travel,” said La Cañada High science teacher Steve Zimmerman, who advises school teams 2429 and 5921, collectively known as the “Blockheads.”
FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) contests give challengers 10 weeks to build robots that can perform a series of tasks via computer programming and remote-controlled driving. La Cañada High Team 2429 and independent team the Golden Gears will compete separately at this level in the world championship.
This year’s challenge, “Rover Ruckus” asks robots to sort and toss balls and cubes into a “lander” and then attach to the lander and heft themselves off the ground. Zimmerman said the game is designed to simulate what engineers would do in space.
“They’re collecting samples and putting them on the return vehicle to be analyzed once it gets back,” he said.
The Golden Gears — made up of teens who formed a FIRST LEGO League six years ago and have largely stuck together since — qualified for worlds after winning an Inspire Award from FTC judges for hosting summer camps for kids and donating equipment so low-income teams could participate in competitions.
Excitement among team members about how their robot, which they refer to simply as “The Unit,” will fare in the competition is palpable.
“In all our years at FIRST we’ve never been to worlds, so this is crazy,” said 16-year-old Stephen Krider, who started Golden Gears in his family’s garage with friend Tyler Rees, now 17. “This year we really pushed for it, and it really paid off.”
Another contest, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), gives teams only six weeks to build robots weighing up to 120 pounds and aims to inspire kids to become leaders in the fields of science and technology.
Members of La Cañada High Team 5921 will be among the ranks of international teams competing for FRC honors in the contest “Destination: Deep Space,” which tasks robots with placing Plexiglas panels on a rocket and loading the launchers with material collected from a simulated planet.
Junior and FRC team vice president Max Weinberger began competing in FTC competitions as a freshman and now hopes to pursue a career in mechanical, electrical or aerospace engineering.
“It’s changed my life,” said Weinberger, who won a Dean’s List award at a recent tournament. “I kind of put this as my front and center thing — it’s pretty much dominated my high school experience.”
For Golden Gears member Rees, the world championships will be a nice break from regular competitions, where members are thinking about getting to the next level. Instead, their only directive will be doing their best.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Rees, whose foray into robotics launched a passion for computer programming. “When I started this in sixth-grade, I didn’t think we would be here today.”