All-girl robotics event stresses the fun side of engineering
Especially for the uninitiated, the robotics competition on Saturday at Catlin Gabel School might seem the very definition of 'controlled chaos.'
While students tweaked joysticks and pressed buttons from remote devices in the shadows, their respective homemade robots lurched, glided and gesticulated around the school's indoor tennis court. As the limbed machines attempted to hang colored, inflated tubes on a three-level rack of hooks, about 250 parents, fellow students and onlookers cheered, hollered and pumped their arms in the air.
It may not be soccer or a Lady Gaga concert, but for high school girls inclined toward science and engineering, a robotics competition is about as fun as a fall Saturday afternoon can get.
By the end of the Girls Generation 2011 competition, members of team 1510 had the accuracy and speed necessary to secure 70 points - besting the host team, among others - and take first place.
The Westview High School team came a long way since last year, when its members took home nothing but the robots they brought with them.
'Last year we were less experienced,' said Mary Steiner, a senior who is 1510's team captain. 'But we still had lots of fun.'
Based on rules established by FIRST, a New Hampshire-based association that promotes robotics programs, the robots at Saturday's regional event were engaged in feats of 'LogoMotion.' Points accumulated when each tube was successfully 'hooked.' Bonus points were added if the round, square and triangular tubes were arranged to form the 'FIRST' logo.
The competition's 'end game' was based on how quickly tiny 'mini bots' could be directed to zip up vertical poles.
Grace under pressure
Of course, it takes a great deal of brainpower and elbow grease to get to the high-spirited competition phase. Most students, however, don't equate their months of study and toil in robotics with drudgery.
'It's not like work,' said Marina Dimitrov, a Catlin Gabel junior. 'You don't feel like, 'Oh, crap, I have to go do robotics.''
Dimitrov, co-president of the Girls Generation team, spearheaded the all-girls competition, which she called the largest of its kind in the country. The event emphasizes FIRST principles such as 'gracious professionalism.'
'You're competing and doing your best, but also doing what you can to help others,' she said. 'You're cooperating but competing at the same time.'
The competition also serves as a warm-up for the FIRST competition season that starts in January. Founded in 1989 as a not-for-profit charity, FIRST sponsors science- and engineering-oriented programs designed to motivate and inspire K-12 students.
'We do this primarily to get girls more engaged on their FIRST robotics teams, so 'winning' it isn't the point,' said Dale Yocum, who volunteers as director of Catlin Gabel's robotics program. 'Often the girls end up in marketing and outreach roles on their teams, so this is a chance for them to take center stage in the driving and repair of their robots.'
Finding the light
With an emphasis on collaboration, Girls Generation gives students new to robotics a chance to learn. They can get the feel for operating their robots in a real-time setting.
'Many teams, including our own, decided to have their new, inexperienced members drive the robot just to get a feel of what the competition is about,' said Yocum, whose daughter, Kelsey, was on Catlin Gabel's robotics team when she graduated in 2001. 'That meant they weren't competitive on the field, but that wasn't the point.'
Yocum, who traded success in the Silicon Valley for a more leisurely life in the Pacific Northwest, said Catlin Gabel's robotics program effectively grooms engineers of the future.
'If you don't get 'em in high school, you're probably not gonna get 'em.'
About half of those who start engineering programs in college, he noted, don't finish.
'That's what FIRST and the other (robotics) organizations are about. If you don't know engineering is fun, you don't have that shining light at the end of the tunnel,' he said.
Dimitrov, whose unassuming demeanor belies her passion for robotics and organizational skills well beyond her years, admitted she was 'always into science.' The Bozeman, Mont., native, got the robotics bug after shadowing a student in the Catlin Gabel lab.
'It was exciting to see the pieces come together,' she said. 'It's great to look at a robot and think, 'I helped build that!''
Schools such as Catlin Gabel and Westview set guidelines intended to keep robotics students engaged with their 'regular' studies.
'If your grades go below a certain point, you can't stay on the team,' observed Steiner, who, like Dimitrov, has devoted eight years to robotics.
Dimitrov said she spends about 30 hours a week on design and building. Despite the commitment, she's found the extracurricular pursuit has, if anything, had a positive influence on her schedule.
'It really helps you do schoolwork more efficiently than if you weren't doing (robotics). I find myself going to bed at about the same time as I did before,' she said. 'It's really teaching me about time management.'
Robotics may leave little time for traditional teenage socializing, but Dimitrov said she feels nothing but respect from her fellow students.
'Probably the entire school knows what the Robotics Team is. It is for geeks and nerds,' she conceded, 'but it's for everybody.'