Team taking its robot to international competition

Tucked among rolling fields dotted with livestock at the base of Grand Mesa, a frenzy over robots is spreading among students at two of the Western Slope’s smallest schools. What started seven years ago at Coll-bran Job Corps has infected students at nearby Plateau Valley High School.

After six years of competition in which the schools enjoyed some successes competing against teams around the nation, now 19 students from Plateau Valley really are on a winning streak. Those students, of Team 1332-SWIFT, will head to Atlanta the weekend of April 18 to match wits with students from 344 schools from around the world.

That’s after blowing away competition in recent tournaments in San Diego and Denver, in which students from more than 3,000 schools competed.

“Have you ever seen kids that say, ‘Can you stay after school, Mr. Johnson, to help me work on this?’ ” said Irvine Johnson, a mechanical engineer who volunteers his time as a mentor. “It’s great to see kids excited about science and math without even realizing it.”

Indeed, excitement has become contagious throughout the program, which is offered as a class to high school students of any grade during the school day’s last period.

Tuesday afternoon, a classroom bustling with activity was no different from any other day since the shiny pieces that would make up the robot arrived from FIRST (For Inspiration and

Recognition of Science and Technology). The nonprofit organization sponsors the competitions, but students must raise funds for travel, housing and food. An outpouring of support and old-fashioned fundraising, which included bake sales and a spaghetti dinner, has netted the students about $12,000 of the $20,000 they’ll need to send the entire team to the national finals.

Students are tasked with using the various pieces to create a robot that will launch basketballs into the trailers of an opponent’s robot.

During January and February, students rarely saw daylight, working from after school until at least 9:30 p.m. and spending weekends to finish their model in the allotted six-week span.

One math problem to program the robot took so long, students had to remember to take a meal break, senior Brevin Currier said.

The robot runs on about 12 volts and must weigh in under 120 pounds.

The students’ winning design may be that it was created to collect up to three basketballs at a time, when many of the competitions’ robots pick up one ball at a time.

Also, students programmed the robot to perform short stints without a human player ever touching a remote control, a fancy trick that earned the local students the prestigious judge’s pick award at one of the competitions.

A number of students claim the class has changed their perceptions of math and science and may have changed their career aspirations.

Lindsey Ross, a freshman, said she always wanted to be a dancer, but the class has her at least considering a future in electronics.

Her brother, team captain and senior Brandon Ross, said his plans to major in mechanical engineering stem directly from the class. He first caught the robotics bug when a former class showed off their robots during middle school assemblies. Senior,

Justin Gross has his sights set on technological engineering and has been accepted to the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado.

Sophomore Ethan Harvey said he hopes to use the experience programming the robot to fulfill his dream of becoming a U.S. Air Force pilot.

A fact that students now find funny is the class’s robot project earned a paltry 43rd place out of 43 contestants at last year’s event. This year, however, whenever Harvey yelled, “Let ’Er Rip, Tater Chip” the team advanced into the next round. The robot’s name stuck, and everyone’s hoping Harvey’s lungs will hold out at their upcoming meet.

“We won this year, and usually nobody likes (the class),” Harvey said. “They’re starting to think, ‘Oh, this is a fun thing to get into.’”


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