Regional Robotics Season Underway

By Denise Ruttan

DSC_00962Groggy excitement bubbled through the LaSells Stewart Center as teens wearing brightly colored team shirts gathered in the auditorium even before the sun rose on Saturday. These youth chose to be here instead of watching TV or sleeping in.

They were here for the Jan. 3 kickoff celebration for Oregon FIRST Robotics’ 2015 season. The event brought nearly 350 high school students and their parents to Oregon State University from Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, and Newport and points in between.

FIRST, which means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an international competition that gives high school students engineering experience. Each year organizers reveal the theme of the season’s game at kickoff. Teams then spend an intense six weeks designing and building a robot that can “play” that game at competitions. 

In the kickoff, teams got a taste of that intensity. This year’s theme is “Recycle Rush.” Robots must work individually to stack tote boxes to gain points. Robots must also distribute foam pool noodles, or “litter,” into recycling bins.

Succeeding at these robotics challenges provides a team environment for kids who are not into sports or drama, said Kristina Wonderly, chairwoman of a regional network of adult mentors.

“I grew up as a student-athlete and didn’t understand what robotics were about until I went to my first competition and heard everybody cheering,” Wonderly said. “I couldn’t believe I was cheering for a robot to win.”

Mentors don’t even need an engineering background. Bill Dunn, a mentor for Crescent Valley High School’s team, owns a seed company. 

“I didn’t know what it was about until my son Ryan told me we had to be at OSU at 6:15 a.m. on a Saturday,” Bill Dunn said. “That’s when I knew it was something important. It’s been a great experience.”

Students next picked up the parts ranging from neon-green pool noodles to electronics for their robot kits at Kelley Engineering Building. When complete, the robot could weigh 130 pounds.

Following the regional celebration, Crescent Valley High School students headed to the high school for a pancake breakfast and to start the season off right with brainstorming sessions. Team captain Ryan Dunn didn’t waste any time. He focused on his computer while downing maple syrup-covered pancakes. As his red-clad teammates buzzed around him with earnest industry, he studied the build instructions. He aims to take his team all the way to nationals in 2015.

“I think it will be an easy game, but to compete at a high level we need to build as efficient a robot as we can and that will not be easy,” Dunn said.

Dunn wasn’t always so interested in robotics. His first love was cars. But participating in FIRST opened his eyes to ways he could incorporate robotics into his ambitions.

“If it hadn’t been for FIRST I probably wouldn’t be pursuing engineering,” Dunn said. “As for leadership, my experience with FIRST has helped me become a good leader of groups. You have to be good at working under deadlines, building robust designs, and making design decisions.” 

Nearby, Graham Barber, a junior, and Fauzi Kliman, a senior, concentrated on their laptop. They’re already programming a scouting application for their robot.

Kliman hopes to attend OSU next year to study computer science.

“FIRST has given me programming experience as I am programming captain, and real-world experience in engineering and leading a team,” Kliman said.

Crescent Valley’s CV Robotics team will meet for four hours a day, five days a week, for the next six weeks. They planned to hunker down over the weekends, too. As early as Tuesday, Ryan Dunn anticipated completing a prototype. After that, the sky’s the limit.