A School Robotics Team
(This 830th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 4, 2007.)
Circuit Stompers team members work on their robot (from left): Delphi engineers Paul Applegate
and Jim Christen; Newfane students Zach Wilson, Dustin Snyder, Nick Pardee, Michael Lanigan;
and Delphi engineer Fred Dempsey
While most local high school athletic teams compete only with neighboring schools or at most at the state level, the Newfane High School Circuit Stompers, a robot constructing team, competes internationally.
The Circuit Stompers' workroom shelves are filled with trophies. They have been to meets in Toronto, Atlanta and Orlando. In 2003 they even placed third in the national competition in Houston. This year they are already scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
They participate in the FIRST (that acronym representing For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, now in its 16th year. FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, an inventor, physicist, and science-technology advocate, who is president of a Manchester, NH research company. His company has developed such innovative devices as a portable dialysis machine. Kamen initiated the FIRST competition to develop "not only science and technology skills and interests, but also self-confidence, leadership, and life skills." Beginning in 1992 with 28 teams in New Hampshire, FIRST now involves over 100,000 youngsters.
Each year FIRST assigns specific tasks to be completed in its regional and national competitions. Teams must not only design, build and program a robot that meets size and weight limitations, but they must construct their machine to take on assigned tasks in timed events. This year in a first 15-second test the robot must, unguided, place an inner tube on a robot-selected color-coded rack. In a second 2 minute 15-second test the robot, student-controlled this time, competes on a team in placing tubes and in lifting other robots. Combining such strikingly different tasks in a single machine adds significantly to the assigned problem.
Building this year's robot to address these tasks are 23 Newfane students, advised by two faculty members, Technology teacher Bill Neidlinger and English teacher Sue Lanighan, and nine volunteers, mostly Delphi engineers. Engineers of course, but an English teacher? Mrs. Lanighan's contribution is equally important, because the contest involves still more than robot design and construction. The team is also evaluated on written reports about its activities and its website, www.delphicircuitstompers.com. Individual team members are also interviewed by judges. Preparing for these tasks is carried out in parallel with robot construction.
Dustin Hoffman drills as fellow students Zach Wilson,
Dan Langendorfer watch and Nick Pardee vacuums
The students work in overlapping groups. For example, students Dan Langendorfer, Jason Fischer, Jesse Stroka and Gabe Workman, advised by Fred Dempsey and Paul Silversmith, are responsible for the robot chassis and drivetrain. Other teams are charged with tasks like design, controls, lifter and arm, as well as important logistical activities like travel, public relations and shipping. Clearly this is a full-fledged engineering project.
The competition is a significant undertaking as Newfane's registration fee alone was $6000. That brought the team several cartons of electronic parts to use in their project as well as a 170-page volume of regulations. This initial expense plus the cost of travel and additional equipment makes funding another aspect of their program. Delphi and the Newfane schools provide excellent support but the students must raise money as well.
The Newfane team works 2 1/2 hours each weekday evening and longer hours weekends. But when time gets short, Neidlinger says, "just as in industry, working hours get much longer."
I visited two Circuit Stompers work sessions, the second when the rest of the school was closed because of snow, and came away impressed by the student effort and commitment, the strong leadership provided by school faculty and community volunteers, the remarkable devices they are constructing, and the extended scope of their projects.
Dan Langendorfer works
on his drilling problem
As Neidlinger and I discussed the project, Dan Langendorfer approached to describe a problem. "I've tried everything," he said, "and nothing works." Bill thought for a moment and then responded, "Let's not give up on this. Give it last try," and the two talked briefly about a complicated drilling technique Dan might use. Fifteen minutes later, he returned smiling. "It worked," he said simply. Bill explained to me that he could have asked one of the engineers to fix the part at Delphi, but he wants the kids to solve their own problems.
Neidlinger still calls himself a "shop" teacher, but his domain I found unrecognizable. My outmoded view of the school "shop" was a place where kids built birdhouses or painted wastebaskets. The lathes and drill presses are still there in Newfane but so too are dozens of computers and other electronic equipment. And even those lathes and drill presses are electronically controlled.
Project director Bill Neidlinger works with student
Hilary King on Circuit Stompers travel plans
I asked Bill how he keeps up with the continuing innovation. "It's tough," he said, "but these bright kids motivate me. They're always pressing ahead and sometimes they teach me."