NASA grant propels robotics team to new heights
By Pixie Sulser
A $5,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will propel the Ramona High School robotics team to new heights this year by providing money to expand design capabilities and competition opportunities.
“This grant is a huge help to our program,” said team adviser and RHS mathematics teacher Rick Waters. “We were awarded the $5,000 as a sustainability grant because, due to budget cuts in the corporate world, we lost several of our sponsors.“
All funding for the team comes from fundraising and sponsorships, so “this grant is really, really helpful,” added team Vice President Gary Groenwold. “We have been wanting to enter a second competition for a long time but just couldn’t afford it. The NASA grant will give us the ability to not only build our robot but to also compete in two competitions instead of just one during the robotics season.”
Robotics season? Yes, that’s right, just like any other sport, there is a competition season for robotics teams. The kick-off is Jan. 5 and the season runs for six weeks, culminating in regional competitions all over the country. The San Diego Regional event will be held at the Viejas Arena (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena) in March.
When the season opens on Saturday, each team receives a basic kit consisting of a frame, motors, wheels, and a bit of hardware along with rules and parameters for building their robot.
“The robots must be designed to play some sort of game,” explained Waters. “Every year it’s different. Last year’s model had to shoot baskets. Another year we built a robot to pick up inflatable rings and place them on a peg board, and one year our robot had to kick a soccer ball into a net. When we receive our start-up kit, we also learn what the season’s game task is.”
The design of the robot beyond the basic kit materials and assigned “game” task is up to the individual teams, however there are established rules and safety regulations that must be followed.
“For example, a robot cannot have sound effects or flashing lights, and cannot harm another robot,” said RHS team President Robert Hayes.
From the kick-off date, the groups only have the allotted six weeks to design, build, troubleshoot, and adjust their robots. At the six-week mark, the robots are sealed until the start of the three-day competition, and nothing except minor repairs may be done from that point on.
The season can be quite expensive. The regional competition costs $4,000, the foundation materials for the robot run another $1,000, and then there are the “extras” such as travel expenses, substitute teacher pay so the adviser can attend the competition, and whatever additional materials are needed to complete the team’s robotic design.
A second competition is an added $4,000 which is why, until this year’s assistance from NASA, the team has stuck to a single contest.
“There is never enough time, enough money, or enough students, however, somehow, every year, the job gets done,” said Waters.
But it is supposed to be that way, he explained. The entire competition preparation is meant to mimic the often intense work world in which professionals must design and build a product according to a client’s specifications. The students get a sense of reality by being put into a high pressure, deadline oriented situation.
“The deadline doesn’t come with extensions,”said Waters. “Either you make it or you don’t. There are no accommodations for not finishing on time.”
This intense world of robotic competition is the brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen, who wanted to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills. In 1989 Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science &Technology), a nonprofit organization created to make a sport out of technology. He envisioned a “varsity sport for the mind,” something that would combine the excitement of action sports and the rigor of science and technology.
The 15-member RHS team is one of 2,600 robotic teams comprised of 52,000 students in grades 9 through 12 across the United States that support the mission of FIRST to excite and build an interest in the world of science and technology.
Until the robotic season begins, the RHS team meets weekly working on fundraising, organizing, and learning programming language. Once the season starts, the group works daily, including weekends and any holidays that fall within the season, to meet their deadline.
“The last week before the competition is what we sometimes call Rage Week,” said Groenwold. “That’s when we are here until late in the evening and trying to get everything done on time.”
Although the NASA grant is a boost to this year’s team, the program is routinely sponsored by the Ramona Kiwanis Club, Qualcomm, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.
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