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HazMat takes its robot to competition

by: John O'Donnell, 
HazMat, the Lakeridge-Lake Oswego high school robotics team, shown above with teachers and coaches Sarah Alt and Matt Price, will take its life-sized robot to its first contest, the Pacific Northwest Regional Robotics Competition, Friday and Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland. The team has spent the past six weeks building the robot from a combination of kit parts and their own additions.

After months of planning and hard work, it's 'go time' for HazMat, the combined Lakeridge-Lake Oswego high school robotics team.

The 27-student team will put its life-size robot to the test in front of a public audience for the first time Friday and Saturday at the Pacific Northwest Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. The event, which is free and open to the public, runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland.

The competitions are high-tech spectator sporting events, the result of lots of focused brainstorming, real world teamwork and dedicated mentoring, project timelines and deadlines. Top winners go on to compete in national trials.

'We heartily encourage everyone to come by. If they want to visit us in our pit, they're totally welcome,' said Matt Price, a team coach.

The annual contest challenges high school students to design, build and program a robot that competes live on an obstacle course. The performance reflects the effectiveness of each robot and the power of team strategy and collaboration.

This year, the challenge is a racing game called 'Overdrive.' Each team's goal is to score points by moving its robot around a track. The team gets points for every lap they make with a 40-inch yoga ball in tow. More points are added to the score if the robot is able to bring the ball over the hurdle at the finish line.

Following a kick-off announcement in January, the team had six weeks to brainstorm and build its robot using a $6,000 standardized kit of parts (including a donated car window motor) and a set of rules. The team was also free to add their own parts.

The team formed in November at the urging of Lake Oswego Community School officials who thought the high schools needed an opportunity in robotics. The popularity of such programs is catching on across the state - there are now 15 high school robotics teams in the region; last year, there were only seven.

Lakeridge physics teachers Sarah Alt and Price led the charge, and are now the team coaches. Thirteen mentors, which include local engineers and computer programmers, also lend a hand.

HazMat fills a niche in the district for kids who may be more into science and technology than athletics or art.

'It's practical hands-on experience the classroom really doesn't offer in mechanical and electrical and ... for the programmers that really isn't in our curriculum,' Price added.

Ryan O'Donnell, a freshman who worked on the robot's pneumatics, joined the team because he's interested in engineering and meeting professionals who have found success in the field.

'It's fun to see our robot go around and do stuff,' he said. 'What's really hard is designing (the robot) from scratch. It's completely our idea.'

With a budget of zero, the team borrowed $2,000 from the district to get started; FIRST provided an extra $4,000 in backup funds. The team is now working to obtain a corporate sponsor to pay the loan back and keep the team going next year (Xerox, for example, sponsors a Wilsonville student team for $50,000 annually).

To start, the group focused on learning.

'Our big concern from the beginning was just building a robot,' Price said. 'We got started late and didn't have the chance to lay the groundwork.'

A few of the students participated in kit-based Lego robot construction at a young age; others had little or no robotics experience. Out of 27 team members, one is a LOHS student; the rest are from Lakeridge. Four members are girls, including freshman Aubrey Green.

'I loved building things growing up,' she said. 'I was always into Legos and worked with my dad on cars so when I heard about the robotics team I got really excited. It's really hands-on and I knew I would be learning a lot.'

The time commitment drove a few interested students away, Price said. Each week, team members spend several hours Monday, Wednesday and Friday and all day Saturday working on the robot. They gather at Rapid4mation, a garage-style space in Tigard on loan by team mentor Gary McKenzie.

First, the team split into three groups: the mechanical team built the robot structure; the electrical team wired the piece; and the programming team built programs to run the various parts.

'The teams have to work together,' Price said. 'There has to be a collaboration. For us as a rookie team, we asked ourselves 'What can we do?' instead of 'What would we like to do?''

The goal was to create a functioning robot within the size and weight regulations using the least material possible.

The three teams worked together and then ... the robot moved.

'It was just amazing, wow. After all the little bits ... to see it all go together and work perfectly was really good,' O'Donnell said.

For half of the season the team tried to build a robot that would shoot the ball. Eventually, they gave up because they couldn't combine that function with a robot that could go over a hurdle.

Eventually, they constructed a robot that can 'herd,' or trap the ball and push it around the track. The robot, which is on wheels, can also move forward and backward, move its arm and forearm up and down. Two side arms also go in and out.

After making numerous preparations, the team shipped its robot to the coliseum in an enormous wooden crate last week.

HazMat members will assemble at the Memorial Coliseum Thursday with other teams for a day of preparation. The team plans to hold practice matches and troubleshoot any problems that arise. But, for now, they're right on schedule.

'It's not unusual for teams to show up with a box full of parts and put it together on Thursday,' Price said.

During the two-phase competition, one 'robo coach' will run the four-button remote control; two drivers will operate the robot using the remote and joysticks; another coach is responsible for making a game plan and keeping the team on task. The remaining team members will watch or repair the robot in the pit.

Each challenge lasts about two minutes. Price expects his team to complete about eight to 10 matches throughout the two days - then playoffs start.

The top eight teams will pick two additional teams to form an alliance, and HazMat could be one of them.

'The competition gives (the team's effort) a focus, a drive and a reason,' Price said. 'But the competition isn't the point. The point is to build a robot, work with materials to construct something with a purpose and (the team) has done that wonderfully. The fun part makes the effort worth it.'

So, let the fun - and robotic games - begin.

For more on HazMat, visit www.lorobotics.org. To donate to HazMat or offer assistance as a mentor, e-mail Sarah Alt at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..