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High School Robotics Competiton Raises Enthusiasm for Science

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

(Photo: The Holy Cows, a robotics team from High Tech High, get ready to maneuver their robot during San Diego's first regional robotics competition. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS ).

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About a month ago, more than 30 high school teams in California got a crate full of metal parts. Their mission was to build a robot to compete in San Diego's first regional robotics competition. Qualcomm and NASA sponsored the event which took place over the weekend in San Diego. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis followed three local teams and has this report.

It's one day before competition. Hundreds of high school students are adjusting and testing their robots in the iPay One Center’s pit area. Most of the teams here come from San Diego County. Senior Alan McCowski and junior Don Clark are with the Devil Duckies -- a robotics team from Madison High School in Clairemont. 

McCowski: We're basically a really good defense robot we can block a lot of robots from scoring on a rack, and we can pick up other robots. We're devlish is what you can say actually, in a good way.

The students had about a month to design and build a robot from metal scraps. Many students spent countless hours after school perfecting their robot. But it’s not just a serious science project. For ex38le on game day, the Devil Duckies plan to dye their hair red and spike it straight up.  

Clark: We give each other hair dye and hair spray tips.

Tintocalis: So you're engineers and your hairstylists?

Clark: Yes we are.

Joe Acker is the Devil Duckies team mentor. He says there's a reason so many teens are committed to this one project.

Acker: Robots are kind of a universal thing. They’re very futuristic in some ways, but very accessible in other ways. Students who work on cars can relate to it, students who watch science fiction movies can relate to it. So it’s a unifying project. 

It’s Friday morning, the first day of competition. More than 1,000 high school students are scrambling throughout the stadium with their robots. Many of their creations look like they come from another planet. Some have metal wings. Others have claws and antennas.

Now, if you've never been to a robotics competition, here's how it works: Robots score points if they can place donut-looking tubes around poles sticking out from a large metal rack. Teams get bonus points if they can lift other robots off the ground.

One of teams that's had a slow start is the Holy Cows -- a robotics team from San Diego's High Tech High. The claw on their robot malfunctioned in one of the early matches. Sixteen-year-old Britney Parkers is the team leader.

Parkers: It will open and close but it won't rotate right now. So what we're doing is trying to fix the code. And trying to look at all the electronics, and see if all of the breakers are working, and if the pwm cables are plugged in correctly.

Tintocalis: I see a lot of wires right now. How difficult is it to pinpoint the problem and fix it?

Parkers: It’s actually pretty difficult. That's one of the big things about the competition is being able to find the problem and solve it.

One team that's had virtually no mechanical problems so far is the Hammer Heads from San Diego's Kearny Educational Complex. Their robot is called The Predator. It not only has a large claw, but it also has r38s to lift other robots off the court. Senior Daniel Robles is the lead operator, and teammate John Pranger manipulates the large claw. Daniel says when it comes to competing, his team is tough as nails. 

Pranger: We can push most of the robots around fairly easily, but when we do that, we’re wasting time, when we could be scoring points. And we don't get any points with pushing robots around the field. So I'm just trying to figure out ways of how to avoid opponent robots from the other side trying keeping us away from the rack. And how to get John into position where he can easily come down and pick up the tubes.

One of the reasons these competitions are so popular among teenagers is because they look and feel just like any other sporting event. Many teachers credit the competitions with getting more kids excited and about science and technology. Parents like them because they keep their kids out of trouble. And students think they're cool because they're learning through an intense hands-on project.

The Holy Cows, the Hammerheads, and the Devil Duckies won't be moving on to the nationals, but each team won individual awards for their spirit and design. The finalists in San Diego will advance to the national robotics competition in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.  

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