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Learning with robots

CAL students manipulate their creation during challenge at Northwest regional competition
by: Shanda Tice, Center for Advanced Learning senior Tasha Larson is followed by a mix of team members and supporters as she wheels their robot out to compete in the second elimination round of the day at the Robotics Competition on Saturday, March 3, at Memorial Coliseum.

Walking into Portland's Memorial Coliseum, the visitor is greeted by blaring rock and pop music, fans cheering wildly, girls waving pom-poms and referees signaling with their hands.

'That was a HUGE last minute drop!' one referee shouts through his microphone over the coliseum sound system.

In the stands, a group of young men who have painted their bare chests beat them with their fists. Other fans are dressed as medieval knights or science fiction characters. And in the arena, the contestants charge into the center and battle one another to become champions.

It's not a wrestling or boxing match, nor is it a basketball game. It's the 2007 FIRST Robotics Competition Pacific Northwest Regional, held from Thursday through Saturday, March 1-3. It's where Team 1571, from the Center for Advanced Learning in Gresham, came to pit their robot against 53 other robots designed by high school students from Oregon, Canada, Washington, California, Idaho, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

'I've learned that having no social life for six weeks actually pays off,' says Tasha Larson, a Center for Advanced Learning senior.

On Saturday, Tasha, as well as more than a score of her school's students, says she spent those weeks building a robot with a mechanical arm that picks up inflatable tubes and places them on a rack that sits in the center of the coliseum floor.

The 'offensive tube-placer,' as the students call it, looks like an armored-plated serving cart that had gone through assertiveness training, moving its mechanical arm with a sense of tube-gripping purpose.

'It's kind of like a flower of death,' says Eric Gross, a junior, as he opens out the four rhombus-shaped sides of the robot to reveal a dazzling array of equipment.

Nick Burnett, a senior, says he likes the 'whole idea of building something and watching it come to life.' He and his teammates rebuke any who question that their creation is actually alive.

'It eats human flesh,' Tasha says. 'I have scars.'

Indeed, her hands have been cut up from hours of wrestling with the robot. Her teammate, Ian Jones, a senior, says the robot is actually female, and has a taste for human flesh.

'We've got her into counseling,' he says. 'She was resistant at first. She's a good little girl.'

The robot was so good, it - wait - she made it all the way to the region's quarterfinals, racking up four wins, three ties and one loss. The Center for Advanced Learning team eventually earned a judges' award for all-around excellence.

Senior Derek McIntyre says he was impressed by the quality of the robot he and his peers built.

'We were one of the only teams at the competition that didn't have to make repairs to our robot,' he says.

More importantly, the team members say they gained confidence as well as useful skills by preparing for the contest.

'This is the only (extra-curricular) activity I've ever seen where students can come into a competition and experience growth for themselves, and use it in the real world,' Derek says.

Those skills range from learning how to program a computer to making sure people follow safety procedures, says Jin Chen, a senior who is the team's safety captain. Among his duties was making sure team members wore safety goggles at all times when working on the robot.

'You're always keeping your eyes on everybody,' he says.

Local companies, including Microchip Technology Inc., a Gresham semiconductor manufacturer, assisted the team. Seth Urbach, an equipment engineer, lent a hand to the students throughout the robot's creation.

'They're a very motivated set of kids who have great personalities,' he says. 'They're fun to work with. They're fun to talk to.'

Ian says he learned how it important teamwork is.

'I take away from this the knowledge of how important it is to have people you can trust working with you, and that nobody can make anything truly great like this happen on their own.'

The team itself is named 'Braught Wurst,' in honor of Terry Braught, an information technology instructor at the Center for Advanced Learning. Braught, who serves as the team's faculty mentor, noted with a chuckle that the team was named for him over his protests. That's because he wants the students to get all the credit for the work, he says. He says that he was proud of the fact that the Center's team never needed any adults to work on the robot during the competition, which wasn't the case for some of the other teams.

'Our robot just stayed nice and strong,' he says.