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Robotics clubs buckling down to meet Tuesday deadline
February 18, 2012

Engineering teacher Tyler Nichols, right, works with student Stephen Llanez, 16, a Junior, as the Sam Houston High School Robotics team works on their robot, named "Aftermath," at the school on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 in preparation for the "Rebound Rumble" competition. Photo: Lisa Krantz, San Antonio Express-News

By Zeke MacCormack, San Antonio Express-News

In what can only be described as "organized chaos," teams representing dozens of local high schools are in the final stages of building robots for an upcoming regional competition of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

In order to compete in the FIRST competition to be held March 1 at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, teams must have their robots completed by Tuesday.

"We're putting in long hours, but nobody's complaining," said Mary Baughman, a physics teacher at South San High School, which has fielded a robotics team since 1999, reaching the FIRST nationals once. They're also working late at Edison High School to design, assemble and program a robot that can shoot foam balls and climb over obstacles while avoiding damage from other robots.

"We can try our best, and if we win it, that's fine," said Kyle Wesley Grady, a senior at Edison, which has competed 12 years. "We're in it for the knowledge of creating something that is spectacular in our own eyes."

The competition was begun by businessman Dean Kamen and physicist Woodie Flowers in 1992, when it was held at a gym in New Hampshire. Last year, 2,075 teams took part, including many from overseas.

Sam Houston High School is a relative newcomer to the contest that's aimed at teaching problem-solving skills, as well as engineering disciplines, while also emphasizing teamwork.

"It's not just about being the top dog, but also how you work together," said Sam Houston senior Daniel Llanez.

FIRST issues a new challenge each year for the robots, which must be built between Jan. 7 and Feb. 21 using basic components that it supplies for a $5,000 registration fee.

In this year's event, "Rebound Rumble," six robots on the court can score by putting foam balls in baskets, or by balancing with another team's robot on a teetering ramp at center court.

Sam Houston's robot, "Aftermath" is designed to be able to climb.

That remained to be seen, as students were still toiling Saturday to install a camera and links to a computer that should enable a student to control the robot using body motion sensors.

"We're cutting it close," said Tyler Nichols, faculty adviser to the four-year-old club, referencing the Tuesday deadline.

While some clubs have $30,000 or more to build their robot, his team's budget is about $3,000 - much of which was raised by club members.

Sam Houston senior Alison De La Fuentes joined the club last year, and loves it, saying, "It's like seeing a whole new world when you to go to a competition."

Corporate mentors offer the clubs advice, while parent volunteers like Fernando and Benita Llanez provide food, rides and supervision.

"It's priceless," said Fernando Llanez of the Sam Houston club that includes sons Stephen, 16, and Daniel, 18. "They're learning the basics of technology and engineering, and companies are offering scholarships and paid internships because of their participation."

Edison High School teacher Susan Ng is thrilled to see her club applying their math and science lessons under pressure.

"It's getting very hectic, but the students love the challenge," she said.

South San senior Zachary Perales, a self-described "crazy computer nerd," said the club complements his goal of being an orthopedic surgeon.

"I want to make it possible to perform surgery while I'm at the beach," he said.

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