Kathy Hu leans over a table amid the hectic energy of the machine shop at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis. She studies an essential piece of the drive base of the robot that her team is in its second week building. Loose hair falls free of her ponytail around her plastic safety goggles as she focuses intently on her task.
When you “deburr” this metal piece, that means that you’re smoothing out its rough edges, she said. But the holes dotted along the long, narrow bar aren’t supposed to be so sharp. So she touches the jagged metal with her hands, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Much of the team is deducing various problems such as this for their designated robot parts. There’s a fabrication team, a programming team, and an electrical team, among others. Then they run the prototypes through a battery of tests until they get the kinks worked out before arriving at a final design. What’s more, each part has to work in tandem with the whole, so what works well on its own may not fit with the sum of its parts.
For 25 hours a week for six weeks, these teenagers will eat, sleep, and breathe robot. Each week a different parent prepares dinners for the team; tonight it was potato soup and vegetables—then it was back to work.
“Last year we placed roughly 133rd in the world,” said team captain Ryan Dunn. “That’s not bad.”
Their goal is to beat that standing at the FIRST Robotics Competition.
“These guys are not slouches at school either,” said mentor Walt Mahaffee.
This is only Hu’s second year on the team, but she has already learned how to operate the complex computer-aided pneumatic mill, which students refer to as the CNC, over the summer.
“That’s allowed me to be much more helpful,” Hu said.
“In robotics I’ve learned a lot of team-building skills and a lot of engineering skills,” Hu said. “I have to be innovative and think of ideas to solve problems, which helps me in the real world with math because you have to problem-solve in math.”
Even though a lot of the work right now involves individual projects like this, robotics is a team sport, according to Mahaffee.
“Last year we had an electrical board go bad and a team that was competing against us gave us a brand-new board so we could go back out on the field,” Mahaffee said.
That’d be the equivalent of a football team bestowing its rivals with new helmets.
Robotics has also helped Hu narrow down her career path. She’s only a sophomore, but she already knows she wants to study engineering in college.
“It’s a great field of study. There’s a lot of need for engineers,” Hu said. “Right now there are so many jobs that need the problem-solving skills you learn in engineering. There’s so many different jobs that you can do in the field.”
Team members use the same design process employed by engineers at Hewlett-Packard.
“You keep prototyping up until you get your final design. It’s basically engineering. You start with a hypothesis, see whether it works by testing it and you design for specific mechanics,” said Mahaffee. “I’m a plant pathologist and these are the same processes I use in experiments.”
After programming and fabricating these parts, the team will put it all together for two robots, one to practice with.