Every day after school, and for 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday (except when the Denver Broncos are playing), a dozen or so high school students from around the valley come to Grand Junction’s Business Incubator Center to work on a robot.
The students and their mentors are part of the FIRST Team 4944, who are designing, building and programming a 120-pound robot for the FIRST Robotics competition, an international high school robotics contest that gives students real-world engineering experience.
Teams are allowed six weeks to build a robot. Grand Junction’s team will compete in regional competitions in Salt Lake City on March 15, and in Denver on April 5. Three randomly chosen robots will play against another team of three, in a sport-like game that combines aspects of basketball and field hockey, said team mentor Chris Williams. The top eight seeded teams will choose the other two teams to go with them to finals, Williams said.
“If we win either regional competition, we’ll go to the champion matches in St. Louis on April 23,” Williams said.
The robots must pick up a two-foot exercise ball, be able to pass it to one another and score goals seven-feet above the ground.
The competition changes every year, said Williams, an engineer for CAPCO, a Grand Junction defense contractor. Last year’s game required robots to land Frisbees in goal areas, he said.
Founded 22 years ago by engineer Dean Kamen, the first FIRST Robotics competition was held in a New Hampshire high school gym. Kamen invented the first portable insulin pump and the Segway scooter.
“Dean started FIRST Robotics because he felt school athletics get a lot of attention, but there was nothing for nerdy, scientific kids who want to build things,” Williams said. “It teams high-schoolers with professional engineers and scientists.
“You get kids dealing with nitty-gritty, hands-on engineering problems.”
The program has since spread internationally.
FIRST stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Large technology companies and NASA have supported the program with grant sponsorships. They see the FIRST Robotics program as a way to encourage the next generation of engineers, Williams said.
“We’re actively pursuing sponsors,” to help defray students’ expenses for travel to the various contests, Williams said.
Grand Valley honors students, and teens enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program in Palisade, plus students who attend the Riverside Education Center (an after-school tutoring program) are working with their mentors to finish the robot by the Feb. 18 deadline. At that time the robot goes into a “gigantic plastic bag with a security tag and is locked up so we (can no longer) tinker with it,” Williams said.
Other mentors include Riverside Education Center program coordinator Steve Langley and REC tutor Alan Anderson, engineers Thomas Harris and Matt Bryer, sales engineer John Atchison, machinist Ron Raff, and Colorado Mesa University physics student Dirk Terpstra.
“What I think is amazing is that we have IB and AP (advanced placement) students working hand-in-hand with at-risk kids,” Langley said.
Langley was head mentor for Plateau Valley’s Job Corps and Plateau Valley High School FIRST Robotic teams for many years.
Sergio Gallindo, 24, was a student team captain at PVHS in 2007. He’s now a mentor with team 4944, helping with the design team. He’s participated in the FIRST Robotics program for the past 11 years.
“This program solidified that I wanted to become a mechanical engineer,” said Gallindo, a graduate of CMU’s mechanical engineering technical program. “The reason I (mentor) is to inspire other students to attend college.”
Seventeen-year-old IB student Kaia Williams is one of the 18 students on the team. He has participated on FIRST Robotics teams since eighth grade. He doesn’t mind dedicating his weekends and after-school hours during the six weeks of robot-building. The young man plans to work in applied physics someday and said the robotics experience is “definitely worth it.”
In addition to the technical work, “I’ve learned crucial leadership skills,” including public speaking in front of various groups, for the purpose of securing donations and recruits, Kaia said.
Team members also learn marketing, fundraising and community outreach skills.
“There are a ton of scholarships for students involved with robotics,” Williams said. “It’s not just for engineering students — it’s for any major.”
For more information, visit the team on Facebook at www.facebook.com/The HiFives.
To offer financial assistance, call Steve Langley at 970-712-6177.