Robot shoots hoops

Shawn Davis, left, controls a robot as it shoots a ball in the Archuleta Engineering Building at Western Colorado Community College.

The opportunity to build a robot is nearly every little kid’s dream.

That dream didn’t go away for the 13 members of Collbran Job Corps’ For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Team. The vocational high school is in its 11th year of participation in the FIRST program, which challenges high school students across the nation each January to design and build a robot that can complete a specific game, which FIRST changes annually.

Winners from each regional competition then compete at the FIRST Robotics Championship, which will take place this year April 25-28 in St. Louis.

This year’s game consists of robots shooting hoops and balancing on platforms in the middle of the robot basketball court. The Job Corps team’s robot uses motors and sensors to scoop basketballs into a chute and launch them at a basketball hoop that the robot will find through a camera sensor attached to the front of the chute.

The team will show off the robot’s skills this Thursday through Saturday at a regional competition in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area and again at a regional competition March 22-24 in Denver.

If they win either competition, they will earn a ticket to the national championship in St. Louis.

The Job Corps team qualified for the national championship in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Matching that achievement again this year is the goal for Job Corps’ teammates.

First place at FIRST isn’t a common achievement for schools such as Job Corps. The live-in academic and career training program for 16- to 24-year-olds often has students that are older than kids on other teams, and students accepted to the program are often at-risk of dropping out of high school. The school is seeking corporate sponsorship for next year to keep the program going.

Even though they compete with private schools with endowments that can afford the shiniest, sleekest materials to build a robot, though, the team has basic materials, seven mentors and dedication on its side, according to team mentor Mike Wedell.

“It took a while for people to realize Job Corps is not the dumping ground for all the at-risk kids,” Wedell said. “We’ve been in the top two or three (at regionals) consistently. I love just the satisfaction of seeing the look on their faces when they say, ‘Yes, I did it!’ “

Mentor Evonne Stites, who also teaches English at Job Corps, said she likes working with a population of students who, for varying reasons, found traditional school didn’t fit for them. She said the hours students spent building robots and interacting with other students in competition can change students’ lives.

“We have one young man who started with us in robotics and FIRST gave him a huge (college) scholarship,” Stites said. “He earned his certification in union masonry and works in the engine room on his Navy ship. He learned some of that doing robotics.”

For Job Corps student Andrew Lugar, the attraction to robotics came from his interest in technology. For classmate Michael Brown, it was about “getting my hands dirty.” Job Corps student Jacob McKinney just thought making a robot was “awesome.”

“I didn’t know anything about this stuff,” McKinney said.

But he learned quickly where wires go and how motors work.

“It’s pretty nifty seeing something come to life,” he said.


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