DEFYING THE ODDS
After being kicked out, as a club, from Franklin High School - their home for many years - where they had been the Portland area's original nationally-sanctioned student robotics club - it looked like Mahr's Metal Beavers might not be able to compete in the regional FIRST Robotics competition.
But, the coaches, mentors - and most of all, the students of 'FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1432', their club's official designation - beat the odds stacked against them, when they proudly rolled their metallic robot into the playing arena on March 25, the first day of FIRST Autodesk Oregon Regional competition in Memorial Coliseum.
Instead of building their remote-controlled robot in Franklin High's spacious-but-disused auto shop, as they used to do, the students created, built, and tested their robot 32 blocks east - a long bus ride from their school - in the basement of Ivanhoe Lodge, Knights of Pythias, 5400 S.E. 84th and Insley, in the Lents neighborhood.
During the Holiday season, FIRST headquarters reveals to all competing teams the tasks the robots are to perform, which parts will be supplied, and how the game - played on a basketball-sized field - is scored. Each high school's team has just six weeks to build their robot to exacting specifications.
'This is the eighth season for us,' said Mahr's Metal Beavers mentor Alan LohKamp, as we stood by the club's pit at the competition. 'We're the oldest team in the city. It's a very different challenge this year, changing locations an all. And, this year's build was also unique, with the addition of trying to deploy a 'mini-bot' off the main robot.'
Even though their team's funding was held up by the fracas with Franklin High, the team found time to mentor a rookie FRC team in Gresham - and host a team from Mexico - and both those teams won the opportunity to compete at the World Championship. 'They say we had something to do with their success,' modestly admitted Rebecca LohKamp.
Students scurried around, working on their robot in the pit area. 'It was exciting when we discovered that the arm on our main robot was too short,' remarked club member and robot driver Hadrian Carlsen. 'In a few moments the 'hand' went through an evolution, so it could touch the floor, and then finally we added foam for a better grasp.'
When it was time to compete, the team rolled the robot out to the playing field, and vied against six other teams - all trying to pick up oddly-shaped 'inner tube' pool toys, and place them on high pegs on poles.
FIRST Pacific NW Regional Director Debra Mumm-Hill smiled as she watched Mahr's Metal Beavers operate their robot.
'They're troupers,' Mumm-Hill told us. 'They are some of the most under-served students we have in our program, yet they have the biggest hearts that you can imagine. They rolled out the red carpet for the 42-member Mexico team. They came down to Salem, inviting every member of the Oregon House and Senate to this event, with their robot handing out the VIP invitations.'
Mumm-Hill added that she was truly pleased that the club didn't disband, and persevered, making it to the competition. 'This is a team made up of amazing people, mentors and students, who don't do it for the glory. They're doing it for all the right reasons. They're always reaching out, and making sure that people know about FIRST.'
Although they didn't make it into the finals, these Franklin High School students still enjoyed the two-day event.
After the competition, Carlsen said about participating in the robotics club, 'I absolutely loved being able to create an idea, and then from that, to learn how to use the tools at hand to make that idea come to fruition.
'When I made the first prototype of the claw used to pick up the inner-tubes, and then as I watched it struggle to life, I could not stop smiling. Something that started as a simple idea in my mind, was in my hands, and doing exactly as I constructed it to do.'
Although their team is now small - they lost about half of their club members when the club was locked out of Franklin High school - Carlsen had high praise for the program. 'I had an amazing experience, and I thank FIRST for creating this program - but most of all, I thank my mentors, who put a tremendous amount of hours into teaching us new skills and helping us develop our ideas.'
Mentor Rebecca LohKamp said, 'The kids are excited and making plans on how to make next year better. Thanks to the S.E. Portland Rotary Club for being our fiscal sponsor,and the Knights of Pythias Ivanhoe Lodge #1 for giving us a place to meet! We continue on.'
To help rebuild the club, LohKamp said, they are arranging middle-school visits to talk about FIRST, and to show off their robot. They are seeking additional sponsors and mentors. 'We didn't win this year, but we didn't expect to. We have high hopes for next year.'
For more information, or to donate, visit their website - www.team1432.org - or see their exhibit at the Multnomah County Fair in May.
Cleveland High's robotics team makes finals, wins awards
Although they didn't make it to the FIRST national competition, the Cleveland High School 'PigMice', a/k/a 'FIRST Team 2733', were named team captains during the regional competition.
They handily won their first match, and scored well throughout the competition - being one of the few teams to successfully send a 'mini-bot' scurrying up a pole at the end of each round.
'We might have won, but for a blown transmission on our robot,' said PigMice coach Greg Banks. 'PigMice did win three awards: One for animation, one for being a 'cool robot', and one for making it to the finals. We wish we could have gone on to nationals, but we had a great season anyway.'
Agreeing with him was PigMice team member and spokesperson Emilie Fisher - one of the kids from Winterhaven School in Brooklyn who won the FIRST Lego League International robotic championship in 2009 - 'This is the best we've ever looked.
'I'm so proud of my team,' Fisher continued. 'We've been doing amazing stuff this year. It's incredible when you think about it: The robot is so complex that no one person can figure it all out. It takes all of us.'
The FIRST program is more than just another school club, Fisher remarked. 'Our country hasn't had a focus on science and math since the days of President John Kennedy. With the Obama administration, they are putting a focus back math and science. We learned our lesson in 2008: We can no longer engineer Wall Street; we have to engineer products, to get our nation's wealth.'
FIRST Pacific NW Regional Director Debra Mumm-Hill said she enjoys the 'ton of energy' she sees from the 40-member PigMice team. 'They are so much fun. These are kids that have grown up in our program; many of them have been with us since the fourth grade. As First Lego League World Champions at Winterhaven, right up to today, they are true-blue 'Firsties'.'