By KATHLEEN LAUFENBERG
“Want to build a robot?”
That’s the question JaSun Burdick, a high-school science teacher, posed to his physics students at SAIL (School for Arts and Innovative Learning) two years ago. He’d heard about an international robot competition for high-schoolers and thought it might be fun.
His students agreed. They chose a name for their robotics club — the Octo-π-rates (pronounced Octo-Pirates) — and launched a search for the necessary booty. They needed a variety of tools and the right people to teach them machining skills and offer engineering expertise.
Enter the Magnet Lab. MagLab master technician John Farrell, engineer Scott Bole, research assistant Jerris Hooker and a host of others spent countless hours mentoring the teens, who often dye their hair purple (their team color) to show their enthusiasm. Farrell also donated scores of his own drills, wrenches, saws and other tools to the team, and the MagLab donated a lathe and mill.
“We started out with just about nothing the first year of the robotics club,” Hooker said. “But more and more people kept getting involved, and by the second year, things just fell into place.”
By mid-February of 2012, the Octo-π-rates had drilled, welded and done the math needed to complete their second robot and compete at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in the University of Central Florida Arena.
Each of the 64 teams entered in the competition had received the same instructions and parts kit in January. Each team then had six weeks to completely build a robot that could shoot basketballs and traverse a small bridge.
Before the mighty Octo-π-rates could scuttle south to compete, however, a critical test remained. They needed to power up their machine — dubbed “the Farrell Beast” in honor of their MagLab mentor — and make sure it worked.
But aaarrgh, matey! The ’bot shook violently and nothing more.
“It should have worked,” said SAIL senior Cory Jackson, 18. “We knew we had a problem with our flywheel. We knew it wasn’t centered correctly. But we had no clue how to fix it.”
They did know whom to call, however: the beast’s namesake.
“John came over and walked us through how to change it so it would work,” Cory said. “Instead of doing things for you, he would kind of show you how to start it off and then let you take over and do things for yourself, so you could learn.”
Ready to go, the team hoisted the 111-pound Farrell Beast into Burdick’s old Ford pickup. Most of the 16 Octo-π-rates piled into three rented vans. And they were off.
On the way, Burdick’s 15-year-old truck broke down. SAIL science teacher and club co-sponsor John Schaller stayed to work on it while the rest of the team zoomed onward to the Orlando robot matches. It was the Octo-π-rates’ second time to compete in the annual March throw-down, and they were raring to go. Or so they thought.
Upon their arrival to the three-day event, they freed the Farrell Beast from its box. They readied their remote control and — something went awry.
“We had written new code that we hadn’t really tested and nothing worked,” Cory said.
They tried not to panic.
“That’s one of the things they had to learn: Do not panic,” Farrell said of the skills he tried to teach. “You cannot panic. You just fix it.”
At first, staying fairly calm wasn’t too hard.
“But as the day went by, and it still didn’t work, that changed,” said Brenna Wonsey, a 16-year-old SAIL sophomore.
All day, the team tried to puzzle out what was wrong. The Farrell Beast — powered with a 12-volt, 18-amp-hour battery — worked fine when they plugged their controls directly into it. But when they tried to run it remotely, in order to compete, it went kaput.
“It wouldn’t even drive when we brought it out on the floor in front of everybody,” said Burdick, the team’s advisor. “It would just sit there and do nothing.”
Luckily, the first day of the three-day meet is all about fixing whatever unexpected problems each team encounters — and many of the 64 high-school teams were scrambling to fix their robots. The less experience a team has in building ‘bots, the more likely they are to run into snafus. And while the Octo-π-rates would put on a stunning final showing, they still had some surprises ahead of them.
By the end of the first day, things truly looked grim. When the judges announced, “time to go home,” the Octo-π-rates still hadn’t gotten their beast to budge.
“We said, ‘No, no — you have to help us fix it!’ ” Burdick recalled. “We’d met with everybody we could. We’d tried everything we knew how. But we didn’t know how to fix it.”
Then, at the 11th hour, their swashbuckling determination paid off.
“Some really high-up expert with National Instruments came by, and he had this little special pin drive that he plugged into our computer,” Burdick said.
A line of code was missing, he told them.
Wendy Chan, a mechanical engineer as well as Burdick’s spouse, stepped in and quickly wrote the needed code. The Octo-π-rates were finally ready!
Actually, the unknown expert was modeling what the contest organizers call “gracious professionalism.” They nurture this trait during the matches with special awards and points. As a result, the teens really do help one another.
“Every five minutes, someone from another team comes into your pit and says, ‘Hey, do you need help with anything? You need any materials? You need a programmer?’ ” Burdick said. “And if they didn’t have it, they would go find it for you. So the really strong teams, with huge numbers and lots of resources, actually come help the other teams that are weaker or just rookies.”
Once the competition starts, however, the battle is on. Then, at the end of each round, it’s back to helping each other.
“I’ve never seen that in any other form of life, not in college or in companies,” Burdick said. “The organizers have really spent a lot of energy trying to foster gracious professionalism.”
And blimey, but the Octo-π-rates liked this gracious policy!
“After all the hard work, you really want to see the best robot win,” Cory said. “That’s what I really like: It’s all about the skill. It’s about the best robot.”
After a shaky start, the Farrell Beast soon found its stride.
“During the main-event day, we were unbelievably in first place until the final hour or so of competition,” co-sponsor Schaller said proudly. “We — and everyone else — were amazed that a second-year team rose to the top and stayed there through most of the day.”
“Nobody expected it,” Hooker agreed. “It was absolutely crazy. The kids got so excited. They were screaming and jumping up and down.”
But in the last round of matches, Schaller said, “we fell steadily from first to fourth to seventh.”
Out of the 64 high-school teams (some coming from as far away as Australia and Germany) competing, the mighty Octo-π-rates ultimately came in 7th — a fantastic showing for a second-year team.
“We were just thrilled,” said Burdick. “All our hard work from the year before really paid off.”
Team member Emily Gardner, 17, also won the Dean’s List Finalist Award, given to individuals who are technically savvy and exceptional team leaders. She kept everyone up to date on the Octo-π-rates’ Facebook page and showed her team spirit with serious pirate panache: She was one of several Octo-π-rates to shave the number 3502 into her hair (the competition number assigned to the team’s robot), dye her tresses purple and wear purple at the competition.
She and other Octo-π-rates also graciously showed their competitors how the Tallahassee team likes to relax: juggling. In order to be an Octo-π-rate, you’ve got to become a juggler, too.
“They all thought it was really cool,” Emily said. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow! Robots and juggling!’ The whole competition was like a three-day adrenaline rush. When I got home, I said, ‘Wow! Now that’s living!’ ”
The kids did it
What impressed MagLab engineer and Octo-π-rates mentor Scott Bole about the SAIL club was that the kids themselves do the lion’s share of the work.
“If you see a weld that’s messy, that’s because the kids did the welding, not their parents or a hired professional,” said Bole, who was instrumental in helping the club design its first robot. “If you see extra holes, that’s because the kids put the robot together themselves.”
The team came to the MagLab several times to learn machining skills from Farrell, welder Willie Nixon, machine-shop supervisor Vaughan Williams and others.
“When we went to the machine shop, it was like, ‘Wow! This is how it really is!’” Emily said. “That’s what I want to do. I like making things and problem solving.”
After learning how to safely weld, use a band saw and lathe, she also learned about proper measuring.
“Measuring was a big thing for me. Basics like that can really make or break your final project.”
Watching the kids learn made all the effort worthwhile, their MagLab mentors agreed.
“Their sense of accomplishment, it was pretty overwhelming,” Farrell said. “They worked hard, and we’re all really proud of them.
“Next year, I bet they’ll do even better.”
This story was originally published in Issue 9 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.