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Rise of the robots

Scappoose High School students take on the challenge of building a robot for competition


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Scappoose High School Freshman Tyler Shobert looks on with other classmates as they work on a robot after school. The extracurricular robot class is a first for the high school.  Tucked between the metal and wood shops at Scappoose High School, a group of students throw duct tape at each other, joke, argue and meet every day after school to build a robot.

One afternoon, freshman Andrew Hanson intently took apart a Nerf gun hoping to mine it for parts. It was a dead end, he eventually concluded — but at least he knows it for sure now.

The students, most of them freshman, are not discouraged by dead ends. If anything, each idea, no matter where it ultimately goes, spurs them on. They are doing exactly what Tina Bliss, an engineer for Boeing and one of the robotic team’s coaches, hoped they would do: experiment and learn from their mistakes.

The class is attempting to build a robot that can throw Frisbees at set targets and climb a 10-foot tower to compete at a FIRST Robotics Competition this year.

While a robotics class has existed at St. Helens High School for several years, this is the first time Scappoose High School has attempted it, Bliss said.

“We’re as green as green can be,” she said.

Bliss isn’t expecting to win. Instead, she wants the students to focus on building a robot that can perform one task perfectly and at least make a good showing.

The extracurricular class became a possibility after Bliss received a surprise $6,500 grant from JC Penney. The grant effectively covered the costs of the robot kit and competition registration, opening a door into a whole new world for nearly 20 Scappoose students.

These are kids who didn’t make the cut for the basketball team, who are drawn to a different kind of hands-on activity than more traditional extracurricular options, Bliss said.

Many of them grew up taking things apart to see how they work, then creating and building new contraptions. Hanson once made a catapult capable of launching M&M candies across a room.

“I didn’t think we’d need stuff that I do constantly,” he said about the robotics class, but he, like many others, is finding that his skills and interests suit the class’ needs perfectly.

Some of the students, like freshman Jorden Buckner, signed up for the class because they liked the idea of building a robot. However, the reality of the task is very different from what they imagined.

“There are so many chain reactions,” Buckner said. One small tweak can change everything, he said.

Another freshman, Tyler Shobert, has been working on programming the robot, which can be a frustrating task even on good days.

The better part of one after-school period was spent trading off time staring at a computer and then staring at the robot, wondering why the motor wasn’t responding. The robot’s wheels remained stubbornly still.

Though excited to work on robots, Shobert was doubtful about the class when he first started.

“We’re from Scappoose,” he joked. “How are we going to do this?”

The purpose of many robotics programs is to open kids up to what possibilities exist beyond their own homes, schools and experiences — to empower them, Bliss said.

While Bliss and the other coaches want the students to learn from trial and error, they don’t want them to waste time or become discouraged. With the competition looming, the students need to keep moving forward, Bliss said. Her role is often that of the devil’s advocate, questioning decisions and asking, “But what if...?”