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Students finding robotics irresistible: Competitions promote interest in technology

March 10, 2008

On the same day this month when high school boys' basketball teams compete to advance to the state finals, another event showcasing the talents of Indiana's youth should be just as climactic.

Only this contest emphasizes academics over athletics. The three-day Boilermaker Regional at Purdue University that culminates March 15 will host roughly 40 high school robotics programs, including 26 schools from Indiana.

Students will apply their engineering and computer programming skills to design and build task-performing machines.

The winning teams will join others from all 50 states and eight countries for an international robotics championship next month in Atlanta.

The Boilermaker Regional is one of 41 similar events nationwide that are part of the For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, program founded by inventor Dean Kamen.

The purpose is to inspire students to pursue science and technology careers. The state supports FIRST by providing grants to high schools in amounts ranging from $2,500 to $7,500. The Indiana Department of Workforce Development this year awarded a total of $119,000 to 27 high schools.

Kamen, whose inventions include the Segway human transporter, launched New Hampshire-based FIRST in 1989. Today, more than 1,500 teams worldwide participate in the competitions.

Carmel High School is among several area schools fielding a robotics program. It placed second at the international competition in 2004.

Carmel teacher George Giltner said the competitions give his 55 robotics students the chance to be part of a team.

"What's good for these students is that the majority are not involved in any other type of sports activity," he said. "Having them compete and be involved in a competition is healthy."

Costly endeavor

FIRST competitions change annually. This year's "Overdrive" contest is played on an oval track in which the remote-controlled robots accumulate points for each lap completed. Teams score even more points if their robots can hoist 40-inch yoga balls over a 6-1/2-foot overpass bisecting the track.

The action can become quite spirited, particularly because alliances formed for the championship round give several schools a shot to contend for the title.

"Kids will be in the stands with laptops doing scouting reports on the other teams," said Carletta Sullivan, the school-to-work coordinator at Lawrence Township's McKenzie Career Center. Its robotics program includes students from both Lawrence North and Lawrence Central high schools.

Schools can compete in as many regional events as they wish, as long as they pay the $5,000 registration fee. The entry fees help FIRST supply robot parts at no cost, and scholarships to students.

Teams are responsible for travel and hotel expenses. The state grants, sponsorships and student fund-raisers help offset the charges.

The $7,500 the Lawrence program received from the state will help pay for the use of a charter bus to the Cleveland Regional March 20-22, and for its trip to the international championship in Atlanta. Each of its students is responsible for raising $400, some of which will come from corporate donations. Parents and teachers also help raise money.

Carmel students drum up donations by giving presentations to companies and securing sponsorships. Only so many students can work on a robot, so others get involved in fund-raising and public-relations activities, Giltner said.

Huge time commitment

Corporations such as locally based Allison Transmission Inc., British aerospace company Rolls-Royce Group PLC, which has its primary North American manufacturing facility in Indianapolis, and Michigan-based auto parts supplier Delphi Corp., which has a plant in Anderson, contribute both financially and personally.

Monetarily, Rolls-Royce gives about $100,000 annually in direct funding to the nine teams in the metropolitan area. The company also is a sponsor of the Boilermaker Regional and the championship.

Chris Fultz, Rolls-Royce's program director for helicopter engines, became involved in 2001. Then, the only team the corporation sponsored was from Perry Meridian High School.

Coincidentally, Fultz and his family were on their way to Florida for spring break when he learned the team qualified for the championship at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center. After seeing the event firsthand, Fultz became involved as a mentor and his then-freshman son as a team member.

About 15 Rolls-Royce engineers volunteer their time as team mentors. They typically help students design and build their robots, but how much assistance they provide varies.

Giltner estimated students at Carmel perform 90 percent of the work. Students do nearly all the work at Lawrence as well, Sullivan said. At Southport High School, which launched its robotics program four years ago, the entire project is managed by teens.

The team is less competitive, Southport engineering teacher Mike Taylor admitted, but the tradeoff is worth it.

"There's a lot of pride in that," he said. "It's not like a 40-year-old engineer who has been doing this 20 years built it."

Conversely, students in some programs may not have been involved in the manufacturing process at all and may only operate the robots during competitions. Rules do not stipulate how much of a robot must be built by youngsters.

At any rate, the time commitment is consuming. Once parts are received in early January, the projects must be completed within six weeks and shipped to their first destinations by Feb. 20. Competing machines cannot weigh more than 120 pounds.

Students spend several hours after school and on weekends building their robots. The experience is "priceless," said Terri Schulz, leader of program innovation for the Department of Workforce Development.

The benefits are twofold: Students learn valuable engineering skills while corporations build their pool of employee prospects. Rolls-Royce often recruits students for internships and job programs during their high school and college years. The company has five former FIRST participants working there full time.
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