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Local students construct robots for competition

FIRST Robotics event fosters interest in computer programming, engineering
By: Chelsea Foster, Special to the Loomis News
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High school students who like technology, robotics or video games can try their hand at creating a technologically advanced game of their own. The students on the South Placer Robotics team design, build and program robots to compete in games against other high school teams across the nation. South Placer Robotics is part of the FIRST Robotics Competition, a nationwide program that reaches over 150,000 students, giving kids across the country an opportunity to learn programming and engineering from a young age. For a competition, teams are given an objective or a game for their robots. They must then brainstorm, decide on a design for their robot, prototype it and fabricate it. The must also program it to complete the required tasks, which often include fighting other robots, manipulating a ball or navigating through a course. They have six week, starting Jan. 8, to construct their robot before the Sacramento Regional competition at the University of California, Davis to be held from March 17 to 19. They will attend the Silicon Valley Regional at San Jose State University from March 31 to April 2. The national championship will be in St. Louis, Mo. at the end of April. Cliff Dover, the team’s electrical engineering mentor, has been volunteering with the South Placer Robotics team for nine years, since his children got involved on the team at Granite Bay High School. “Students really have to learn teamwork, problem solving, and most importantly, decision making. They have to determine what they need to do to win the competition, make an offensive robot, defensive, or both. Then they have to brainstorm and think about what they can do given our team’s talents, skills and time constraints,” Dover said. Paul Wendelboe, a senior at Granite Bay High School, has been on the robotics team for three years. He is one of two head programmers for the team, using Java software to program. Wendelboe said he enjoys the challenge presented by Robotics. He wants to recruit students who are not afraid of hard work from all the high schools in the area, as the team is open to all South Placer high schools. “I recommend it to people who have the attention span for it and can get things done quickly. It’s a lot of work, really fast-paced,” Wendelboe said. “During the six weeks we have to build the robot, it can get really intense. We work every night during the week, then most Saturdays from 9 or 11 in the morning and sometimes till 10 at night.” Daniel Hunter, a home-schooled sophomore who lives in Folsom, is on the build team. He got started with Robotics by joining one of FIRST Robotics’ teams for younger children (which are available for ages 5 to 18), and said he is happy to be part of the South Placer team now. According to Hunter, the rules are complex and the games are always a surprise. But the real test is accomplishing everything quickly. “The time constraint is the biggest challenge. With enough time, you can do anything, but we’re under very strict limits,” Hunter said. Dover pointed out that this team provides an asset for students like Wendelboe and Hunter who want to pursue careers in engineering or are curious about the computer science field. “The idea is to get students trained in a technical profession, and they get a very intense microcosm of what the engineering industry is like,” Dover said. “For some kids it becomes their passion. For others, they decide it was fun but not for them. In either case, they make a better choice. Only one out of four students who begin engineering programs in college actually follows through and graduates. If they’re part of Robotics team, they understand what they’re getting into.” Dover also said the students learn to come together in ways they normally would not. “The best team is made up of a combination of geeks and gearheads. These students don’t naturally come together, but they learn to depend on and appreciate each other. It’s neat to see the kids change in their relationships toward each other.” Robotics teams also offer students who do not gravitate toward sports a place to learn skills like teamwork, dependability and how to overcome adversity. “Sports give great experiences for kids who are athletic, but we don’t invest in these other kids. We as a nation don’t need more football players; we need more engineers,” Dover said.