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Monday, February 25, 2008

City team prepares for robot war

By Eliza Hallabeck
Special to the Register
There were no screws loose as the Hill Regional Career Magnet High School’s Robotics Team tested their creation.
Within 24 hours of testing, the more than 3-foot-tall robot was to be packaged and sent away for the regional tournament, which starts March 13 in Hartford.
“This robot can cradle a 10-pound ball and can launch it over a rail that’s about 6½ feet high,” said Luis Quiles, 17, a junior at Career and one of the three team captains of Team 558, otherwise known as the Elm City Robo Squad. “And it drives pretty fast.”
The FIRST Robotics Competition began in 1992 in a high school gymnasium in New Hampshire, and now holds its championship tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. This year, the students have been challenged to build a robot that can lift a 10-pound ball over 6 feet in the air and move around a track.
The Robotics Team at Career has 25 students this year that do everything from programming on the computer to helping to build the robot. Quiles said he has been putting in about 20 to 30 hours a week on the project.
Sending the robot off to the convention, where it will not be allowed to be touched or altered, marked the end of six weeks of work for the students, faculty, mentors and local volunteers who have worked on the project.
The Elm City Robo Squad’s robot picks up a ball by using two claws, then moving the ball over the top and releasing it in the back. According to Andy Wight, a math teacher at Career, the robot’s action works like a reverse basketball dunk.
Maya McReynolds, 17, a team captain and junior at Career, said she learned a lot because of her experience with the robotics team.
“I personally am taking physics this year,” she said. “And it is hard, but I can apply it to what we are doing here.”
McReynolds said the team had a few problems during the creation process.
“Some of the challenges we’ve had were with pneumatics,” said McReynolds.
Pneumatics, according to Quiles, is the way they wanted the robot to move. It uses pressurized air instead of a motor.
“We operate on a shoe-string budget, but most of the engineers here say that’s the way engineering is,” said Ernie Smoker, a physics teacher at Guilford High School and the engineering mentor for Team 558.
Wight said Yale University and the United Illuminating Co. have been the largest contributors to the team’s cause. Danbury Hospital donated two laptops, because mentor Norm Plude, who commutes from Southbury with his son Pat to be on the team, works there.
Smoker said students put in great effort to be at school off hours. Students walk, take the bus or car pool with other students to Career.
Smoker’s wife, Denise Smoker, a lawyer for the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and a mentor who got involved because of her husband, said the FIRST Robotics competition acknowledges the effort teams put in by giving multiple awards.
“Seeing our kids hold their own is great,” she said.
Ernie Smoker said he makes sure the students take an active role in the entire process, because it is the best way to get the most out of the experience.
“It’s so much more fun if they’re doing it, and then they own it,” Smoker said.
Russell Rivera, 17, a captain of the team and a junior at Career, said this year has been harder than last year because there are no seniors on the group. He was able to do more specific things last year, he said, now he was involved in the entire process. The bumpers “had to be the hardest part. There had to be put on, and they had to be specific dimensions,” Rivera said.
With or without seniors this year, Rivera said the team is closer than before. “That’s what makes our team better,” he said.
Ernie Smoker said one of the goals of the program is to get everyone involved. Students and mentors are encouraged to get their family involved, and to bring younger children if necessary.
“They always say in this program that it’s really not about the robot, and it really isn’t,” Wight said.
Eliza Hallabeck is a Register Intern.

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