GARDINER — The wheeled robot zipped across the classroom floor, abruptly stopping at the feet of the spectators before jerking back just as swiftly.

“We haven’t clocked it, but they’ll move pretty quick,” Aaron Basford, the lead mentor for the high school’s robotics team, said at the Thursday team meeting at Gardiner High School.

The robot, which looks like a miniature scissor lift without the basket on top, eventually will be able to shoot flying discs at targets while battling other robots in a competition that resembles disc golf.

It’s the result of almost a month of work by a team of 15 students who will compete against nearly 40 other high school teams in the For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Regional Competition, to be held April 4 to 6 in Lewiston.

The club, now in its second year, competed last year at the regional competition held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. FIRST is a worldwide program that encourages students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields through a variety of robotics competitions.

Students spend six weeks designing and building the robot, which must weigh less than 120 pounds and stand less than 5 feet tall. At the regional competition, they’ll join with two other high schools to compete against another three-school team.

The type of competition changes each year. This year the teams’ robots must shoot discs into goals on the top of the arena wall, both autonomously and when controlled by the students.

Teams also get bonus points for climbing the rungs of a tower with their robots.

Winners of the regional competition or other awards progress to the championship in Missouri.

Basford said he started the team at Gardiner Area High School last year to give students, such as his son, who’s part of the club, an opportunity to progress from the FIRST LEGO League team at the middle school.

The LEGO League is competition for middle school students that has them building small robots with LEGO sets.

Building interest

Paul Fowler, another mentor for the robotics team, said they’ve tripled the number of students involved this year compared to last.

“They crashed their way through it last year. This year they know what they’re doing,” he said.

For students looking to study engineering, computer programing or other related fields in college, the program offers a chance to get hands-on experience while still in high school, Basford said.

“Then there are other kids that might not be in school if it wasn’t for this,” he said.

There’s also more to do than just building the robot. One student interested in filmmaking is working on a short documentary about the process and the program’s importance, Basford said. Another student is writing the program’s blog and text for the website.

“The program opens up a whole different realm that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to be exposed to,” Basford said.

Justin Ladner, a senior on the team who plans to study engineering in college, said the project allows him to put what he’s learned in class to use.

“I get a little taste of what the concept of engineering is before I major in it,” he said.

Ladner is in charge of building and maintaining the team’s website — something he didn’t know how to do before Paul Seed, one of the mentors, taught him.

Now, because of the robotics team, Ladner plans to minor in software engineering.

Like Ladner with website design, junior Harris Plaisted knew nothing of programming before Basford taught him how to write programs to control the robot. Plaisted said he now plans to major in computer science in college.

“It’s furthered my interest in programming,” Plaisted said.

Tyler McCutchun, a sophomore, said the program has given students the chance to work together on a project and is “a lot more fun” than school classes.

His favorite part is “shooting the Frisbees,” he said.

Team challenges

Basford said the program has been well received by the high school, which provides a dedicated room to the club, but no funding. He said the team sometimes shows off the robot during lunch, and Basford has visited classrooms to talk about the program.

The team is sponsored by Gardiner Family Chiropractic, Abilis New England and Fairchild Semiconductor.

Basford said Fairchild Semiconductor helps sponsor all Maine teams and will pay rookie teams’ entrance fees.

It costs $6,500 for first-year teams to register for a regional event and $5,000 for veteran teams.

The fee includes the materials to build a basic robot that can drive, Basford said. Everything else is designed and procured by the teams.

Basford said the team still is using a $10,000 JCPenney grant from last year to buy materials and tools. He said the team’s robot will cost around $1,000 to $1,500, short of the $4,000 allowed by the competition.

Basford said the team learns about design trade-offs that engineers have to deal with, such as whether to build a robot that can climb the tower well or focus on the disc throwing.

They also have to be able to adapt when something doesn’t work as they planned, he said. For instance, students came up with the scissor-lift idea but later had to tweak it when they found out they couldn’t generate enough power to lift it when it was completely collapsed.

Now they’re planning on having it partly lifted up, which means it can’t fit under the tower as they originally planned for it to do, Basford said.

“Those are the kinds of challenges you run into,” he said.

Some of the other adult mentors, like Basford, have children on the team; but others are helping for other reasons.

Seed said he’s volunteering his time to encourage the students to pursue occupations in mathematics and science. He works with Basford at Abilis New England, an information technology firm in Portland.

Basford, Fowler and Seed all said they think the robotics team is filling a place in technical fields that the school is no longer offering.

“Where else would you have the opportunity to build that?” asked Seed, pointing at the robot. “It doesn’t exist.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]

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