Brooklyn Center High School club has six weeks to build a robot

By Sue webber
Contributing writer

Elvina Amouzou works at attaching Styrofoam padding to the sides of the robotic base. (Photo by Sue Webber)
Elvina Amouzou works at attaching Styrofoam padding to the sides of the robotic base. (Photo by Sue Webber)

After a dramatic worldwide kickoff Jan. 4, the 2014 FIRST Robotics competition season is underway.

And a group of Brooklyn Center High School students is scrambling to meet a deadline. They have six weeks to build a robot to compete in the Aerial Assist game.

“It’s a varsity sport for the mind,” said their coach, Amanda Schlecht, who is a sixth-grade teacher in Brooklyn Center. “It’s all about working together and teamwork.”

At the end of six weeks, the club will have built a robot capable of advancing a ball and throwing it to score points.

“At the competition, the students talk to other teams and figure out how they can work together for their two minutes on the field,” Schlecht said.

The Brooklyn Center team, now in its second year,  joined other metro area teams Jan. 4 at the University of Minnesota to find out what their 2014 project would be.

An estimated 70,000 high school students on more than 2,700 teams in 92 cities around the globe joined the season kickoff via live NASA-TV broadcast and webcast.

During the kickoff, teams were shown the Aerial Assist playing field and received a kit of parts made up of motors, batteries, a control system and a mix of automation components – along with limited instructions. Working with adult mentors, students have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet the season’s engineering challenge.

At the end of six weeks, the completed robot must be stored in a plastic bag and cannot be touched until the competition begins, according to Schlecht.

“Everybody has the same six weeks to build,” Schlecht said. “To be fair, everyone has to stop building on the same day.”

The local FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition is March 27-29 at William Arena on the University of Minnesota campus. FIRST is a nationwide nonprofit organization that offers opportunities for students ages 6-18 to foster an interest in science, engineering, technology and math.

Robotics Club members receive a 57-page manual and are expected to learn every rule, every height and every weight, Schlecht said.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “It’s intense. A lot of kids haven’t had exposure to hand tools. They need to learn to measure accurately, to drill and cut.”

Senior Paul Herr said he had fun working on a robot at a school in St. Paul last year, so he knew what to expect when he joined the Brooklyn Center club. He’s finding this year’s game to be much more complicated, however.

But the job at hand fits well with his plans for the future.

“I want to do something with computers in college,” said Herr, who has been accepted to the University of Minnesota.

Senior Elvina Amouzou, who said she was interested in pursuing a career in engineering at one time,  worked on the Brooklyn Center robot last year and said she “grew to love robotics” and enjoyed meeting new people at the competition.

Senior Jocelyne Koudou, who plans to be a dentist and will attend the University of St. Thomas in the fall, also is a returnee to the Robotics Club this year.

“I loved it last year, and I’ve always liked watching robots on TV,” she said.

Senior Stacy Osagiede is a newcomer this year who was encouraged to join by the other two girls.

“I thought it sounded very interesting,” she said.

The Brooklyn Center team meets after school each Tuesday and Thursday and for six hours on Saturday. Schlecht shares coaching duties with her husband, Brandon, one of his co-workers and several parents. Her husband did something similar in high school, she said.

“It’s great for kids who aren’t in sports to have something else to do,” Schlecht said. “A group like this gives kids an opportunity to put something else on their resume.”

In addition to the science and math components in the competition, participants find many different ways in which they can get involved, including marketing their work at the competition and learning to negotiate with other teams, Schlecht said.

“Some love the programming and building (of the robot), while others love the marketing,” Schlecht said. “There are so many niches.”

A grant from Cargill last year enabled the Brooklyn Center team to buy a new laptop to use in programming their robot.

“Last year we weren’t prepared for the extremes it takes to participate in these competitions,” Schlecht said. “We’re not a rookie team anymore. We have a better idea this year how we want our robot to work and how it will function in the competition.”

The Brooklyn Center team came in 46th out of 65 in last year’s competition, she said.

“We came to the competition with a box of tools, and other teams were rolling in with big tool chests,” she said. “We had iron-on T-shirts, and they were all in uniforms.”

This year, however, the team has been “really fortunate,” Schlecht said. Brooklyn Center’s Centaur Foundation is helping the club, and the team received a grant for new tools and matching shirts that they didn’t have last year.

At the competition, each team is given a 10-foot-by-10-foot area in which to do all the preparation work with their robot.

But in the end, it all comes down to the 2-minute, 30-second match.

No team is allowed to spend more than $4,000 on its robot, and no more than $400 on any one individual part.

The Brooklyn Center group was able to use some parts from last year’s robot, which helps to keep the cost down, Schlecht said.

In addition to receiving help from the Centaur Foundation, Pentair paid the team’s $5,000 registration fee, and a 21st Century grant paid for busing and food.

HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED

Aerial Assist is played by two competing alliances of three teams each on a flat, 25-foot by 54-foot field. Alliances compete by trying to score as many goals as possible during a 2-minute and 30-second match. Additional points are earned by robots working together to score goals, and by throwing and catching balls over a truss suspended just over five feet above the floor as they move the ball down the field. The more alliances score their ball in their goals, and the more they work together to do it, the more points their alliance receives.