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Hot to 'bot

Tewksbury High students hope their 5-foot, 120-pound creation is good enough to compete for a national title

The Tewksbury High robotics team includes (from left) Richard Santoro, Tom Long, Kenny Robinson, Nick Setzer, Jocelyn Haversat, and Jason Silva. The Tewksbury High robotics team includes (from left) Richard Santoro, Tom Long, Kenny Robinson, Nick Setzer, Jocelyn Haversat, and Jason Silva. (Globe Staff Photo / Joanne Rathe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Staff / March 27, 2008

With only one computer programmer (and he's barely a teenager), an odd assortment of parts and pieces, and a shoestring budget, students at Tewksbury Memorial High School have built an automaton that can maneuver like Michael Jordan, gracefully passing a ball over and under an overpass while zipping around a racetrack.

The robot stands just shy of 5 feet tall and weighs less than 120 pounds. While it lacks the stature of an NBA star, it has long, strong arms any athlete would envy: The appendages can propel a 40-inch inflated ball with enough velocity to make opponents nervous.

At least, that's what the Tewksbury Titans are hoping. The robotics team plans to put its steel creation to the test this week, when the robot competes at Boston University's Agganis Arena.

Fifty-one high school robotics teams, comprising more than 1,000 students from Massachusetts and six other states, will do battle during the two-day contest beginning tomorrow. Tewksbury is the only school district from Boston's northwestern suburbs heading to the Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Regional Robotics Competition, now in its third year.

At stake is the chance to compete next month in the national FIRST Champi onship in Atlanta, where the top teams will vie for scholarships. It's also a chance to grab bragging rights among peers - technology-minded teenagers doing something they all enjoy.

"I've always been interested in engineering and programming, so for me this was an amazing experience," said Neil Dave, 14, a freshman member of the Tewksbury team. "I've learned some new electrical and mechanical skills, and got a chance to work with a lot of other kids who share my interests."

It was an opportunity that nearly slipped away. Although the Titans have plenty of support - Raytheon and Mercury Computer Systems sponsor the team and provide mentors with years of engineering experience - the Titans lost their faculty adviser this year and had to scramble to find a new one at the 11th hour.

Art teacher Dave Moffat walked into the main office at the high school one afternoon to pick up his mail, and walked out as the Titans's new adviser. An art teacher may seem an odd choice for a team charged with engineering and programming tasks, but Moffat said he felt up to the challenge.

"I had just two rules - no ugly robots and no flamethrowers," he said.

Luckily, meeting those requirements was easy. The challenge was figuring out how to design a robot that could do laps around a track for two minutes and 15 seconds while maneuvering an inflated nylon ball over and under a 6-foot-6-inch overpass that resembles playground monkey bars.

"We wanted to make sure our robot was able to perform all the tasks well, not just one or two of them," said Dhiren Shah, who plans to pursue an engineering career.

"The biggest challenge was the arms," said Nick Setzer, president of the robotics team and the only Titan with programming skills - although he did get help from mentor and former Titan Alex Buehler, who graduated last year. "There was a lot of debate about what they should look like and how they should move."

But the team had little time for talk. The students were given a common kit of parts in January, a budget of $3,500 for any additional gadgets or gizmos they deemed necessary, and just six weeks to build their robot, said Armando Alcantar, a Raytheon systems engineer who has mentored the team for three years. Complete or not, the automaton had to be shipped by mid-February. Today, it sits in a packing crate in a secret warehouse, waiting alongside dozens of other entrants for the moment to strut its stuff.

Countless hours have been spent in the shop tweaking the design. Should the arms go up and down like an elevator, or maybe move like a forklift? In the end, the Titans decided the limbs should resemble big levers so that the robot could roll the ball onto the overpass, then turn around and pick it up. The students named their creation Prometheus, in honor of the Titan who, Greek legend has it, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind. It's a fitting name for a robot they hope will be clever enough to earn the team a spot at the championship event.

"The competition requires the kids to learn about computer programming, engineering, robotics, and even Web design, and to use those skills to solve a complex problem," Alcantar said. "Once you start doing it, it's in your blood. The competitions are just electric, so much fun."

And the FIRST program is good not only for the youngsters but also for the community, Alcantar said. "We're growing the engineers we're going to need in the future," he said, noting that several of the students who were on the team last year are studying engineering in college.

The excitement is exactly what Dean Kamen, an engineer and the inventor of the Segway personal transporter, was hoping to cultivate when he founded FIRST in 1989. Based in Manchester, N.H., the nonprofit organization seeks to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math while building self-confidence and leadership skills.

"Dean wanted to create a competition that has the energy of the NFL Super Bowl and the excitement of a rock concert," said Marc Hodosh, chairman of the Boston FIRST competition. "It's about changing our culture to celebrate science and technology in the same way we celebrate sports and entertainment. We want kids to look up to engineers the same way they look up to athletes."

In keeping with that philosophy, this year's regional competition promises to combine the deafening screech of clashing metal and screaming fans with some of the biggest names in high tech, including Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer Inc. Wozniak will judge the competition, Hodosh said.

Despite the performance pressure, the Titans are not too worried. They know what to expect, having been in similar FIRST competitions in the past.

The Titans were founded in 2004 by Russell Morin, a former student at Tewksbury Memorial High. That first year, the team placed 51st in a field of 52 teams. The students chalked it up to a learning experience. Each year, they improve their standing. Last year, the Titans finished in second place at the BAE Systems Granite State Regional in Manchester.

"Each year, the rules are different and the kit of parts changes," Shah said. "Other teams might have better assets, or a robot that looks more polished, but in the end, the question is can you win the competition."

To learn more about the Boston FIRST Regional Robotics Competition, visit the event website at bostonfirst.org.

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at bbuote@globe.com.


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