BY L.A. LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
She’s passionate about robotics.
“This is just a great hands on experience,” Ross said. “I get to learn all these technical things and work as a team.”
Ross, who wants to be a mechanical engineer, is part of a 16-person team known as the R4 Robo Riders, No. 4219, competing at the Alamo FIRST Robotics Competition, which kicks off Friday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio. The teams gathered on Thursday to test their robots and check out the competition.
Alamo FIRST is the largest regional robotics competition in the U.S., which has 56 events nationwide, said Patrick Felty, regional director. Inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST, which means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, in 1989. The nonprofit program seeks to inspire young people in the science and technology fields. A study of the program shows that participants are 50 percent more likely to attend college and are twice as likely to pursue a career in science and engineering.
The kids also learn how to compete and collaborate. On Thursday, some teams would offer up parts to other teams in need. Also, a team from Mexico had its robot stolen in transit and many of the teams pitched in to help them get parts and build a robot in a day. The competition includes teams from Missouri, Florida, Texas and Mexico.
The kids practice “gracious professionalism” which emphasizes respect for others, kindness and being helpful, Felty said.
This year, 170 teams and more than 3,000 kids will compete in different events throughout the two days. Kids as young as Kindergartners through eighth grade will compete in the Junior and the First Lego League. Older students will compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge and the FIRST Robotics Challenge, which challenged teams to build a robot in six weeks that could throw Frisbees at different targets.
The event, which concludes with the finals on Saturday afternoon, is open to the public. It’s like a major sports event which celebrates smart kids. Many of the schools brought their Mascots to cheer the competitors on along with mentors, teachers, parents, friends and other fans.
Rackspace is a title sponsor of the event and many other companies that depend upon a technical and talented workforce have also backed the competition including Toyota, Time Warner Cable and the Texas Workforce Commission.
“Rackspace realizes these are all their future employees,” Felty said.
In fact, Evan Gray, who now studies aerospace engineering at Texas A&M, returned for the weekend to mentor students and help out with the competition. He interned last summer with Rackspace and he’s been involved in robotics competitions since he was nine years old.
“These kids get to learn about electronics, mechanical engineering, programming and so much more,” Gray said. “They get great experience and get to have fun doing it.”
Rackspace employees also help mentor the team from Roosevelt High School, which is located near their headquarters.
All of the kids work on the robotics team as an extracurricular activity, said Brian Griffith, robotics program administer and teacher with the engineering and technology academy at Roosevelt. They learn engineering in the classroom but the robotics competition allows the students to apply the knowledge outside the classroom, Griffith said.
“We think of robotics as training their brain for problem solving then they can apply it to any career they choose,” Griffith said. “We think of the competition as an opportunity for them to apply what they know other than having to spill it out on a test.”
Last year, the Roosevelt team made the semi-finals and they are hoping to do better than that this year, he said.
Another San Antonio team, the Screaming Chickens come from a variety of schools and includes home-schooled kids. They are part of the Boy Scouts Robotics Explorer Post, which includes both boys and girls.
“Robotics is where I belong,” said Lauralee Kalinec, 18, a senior, who has participated in the competition for two years. “We learn something new every single meeting. It’s my favorite place to be.”
She plans to go to Texas A&M University next year and major in civil engineering.
“I will come back and volunteer and be a mentor to the teams,” she said.
Michael Horwath, a mechanical engineer, mentors the Screaming Chickens team. His son Xander, 14, a sophomore who is home-schooled, works as the team’s programmer on the robot.
“They are so well motivated,” Horwath said. “I’m amazed at how much these kids take on and how much they actually do.”
Team No. 457 the “Grease Monkeys” from South San Antonio High School won the competition last year and they plan to do it again this year, said Ruben Reyes, 17, a junior.
“We’re going to do great this year,” he said. “We had some slight electrical and slight mechanical problems. But we worked out all the kinks and we should be good to go.”
Reyes said he likes math and doing robotics is fun and rewarding. He’s very proud of the team’s robot, named Kaizen, which means continuous improvement in Japanese.
“This robot is the heart and soul of our team,” he said.
The AusTin Can team from Anderson High School in Austin won a regional Chairman’s award last year and they hope to repeat that feat, said Mo Freid, 16, a junior.
Robotics is a great way to interest people who wouldn’t have access to this kind of technology in engineering fields, Freid said.
“It broadens your understanding of what you are cable of doing,” he said.
When Matthew Carroll, 18, a senior, started as a freshman he didn’t have any idea how to build a robot.
“Three years later I’m designing the whole thing,” he said.
Last summer, Carroll and Freid participated in High School Startup Weekend. They created a special gearbox for FIRST Robots and they launched an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the prototype and production of the gearboxes. They created the components using computer aided design software and printing out the components on a 3-D printer. They weren’t able to use the gearbox in this competition because of FIRST rules. But they hope to use it in the future.