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'Hardest fun you'll ever have'

Problem-solving skills encouraged at robot scrimmage


February 19, 2006

A robot scrimmage is a lot like other high school sporting events.

It takes place in a gymnasium.

Huge speakers blast heavy metal and rock 'n' roll to help the kids get psyched up. And competitors who are fastidious about preparation and practice usually score the highest.

At least, that's how it went down yesterday at Madison High in Clairemont, where eight high school teams vied for the bragging rights of best teen-made robot in San Diego.

“This is the hardest fun you'll ever have,” said Tina Walker, president of the Madison High robotics club.

The group of 30 technology-oriented students call themselves the Devil Duckies, a spoof on the Madison High mascot, the Warhawk.

Walker said she joined the Devil Duckies three years ago because she was interested in learning computer programming. Instead, she fell in love with power tools. The mitre saw and drill press are her favorites.

Yesterday's practice scrimmage required the aluminum-framed robots to shoot mini-basketballs through an elevated hole cut from a sheet of plywood. The computerized machines could also score points by gathering up the balls and shooting them through a ground-level goal. Robots must play offense and defense.

Each robot is supposed to be about 5 feet tall and weigh no more than 120 pounds. They have padded bumpers because, well, it's a full-contact sport.

The team from Granite Hills High in El Cajon nearly freaked out when they learned on the eve of the competition that their robot was 50 pounds overweight.

They used hacksaws and grinders to trim it down to fighting weight.

Shane Parker, the team's vice president, said he was stressing over other imperfections.

“Our ball shooter vibrates like a maniac,” he said. “And it's really loud.”

Each of the robots at yesterday's scrimmage was constructed from a kit of basic materials that cost $6,000. The kits are purchased through a national organization called FIRST Robotics. It's a nonprofit group started in 1989 to promote science and engineering among high school students. FIRST, an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” has spawned about 1,300 robotic teams that compete annually both nationally and at 32 regional events.

Building robots isn't just for science geeks.

The team from Poway High, for instance, includes a varsity basketball player and a former lacrosse goalie.

“You don't have to come in first place to get value from it,” said Jonathan Hoos, a computer programmer and parent volunteer for the Chaparral High team from Temecula.

Designing and making a robot is a fun way for students to learn.

“You have to learn now to become an engineer, a problem solver,” said Mike Kurland, captain of the San Diego High Tech High robotic team.

But students also develop a lot of interpersonal skills, such as how to cooperate and coordinate with each other.

“We approach it like we're forming an engineering corporation,” said Vu Hong, 17, leader of the team from UCSD's Preuss School.

Students are organized into minidivisions of mechanical engineers, electricians as well as marketing and human resources. Many teams videotape each stage of production and competition to use as a promotional tool to attract corporate sponsors.

Preuss School is trying to spread the gospel of robotics to other high schools so a regional division of 20 teams can be established in San Diego County.

All teams participating in yesterday's scrimmage plan to work through the three-day weekend to get their robots in shape for upcoming regional competitions in Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Phoenix.

“I've been doing this nine years, and we've never seen a robot completely done when it gets shipped to a regional competition,” said Rob Mainieri, a math teacher who mentors the Preuss School robotic team. “Everyone will be working from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

Terry Rodgers: (619) 542-4566;

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