"Future engineers" ready for stateside robotics competitions
February 27, 2013
WIESBADEN, Germany - Engineers encounter unique challenges every time they take on a project.
Finding solutions to those challenges may be the most important lesson learned by the aspiring engineers on Wiesbaden High School's RoboWarriors team, according to engineering and technology instructor (and RoboWarriors sponsor) Frank Pendzich.
Pendzich, along with students and volunteers, was in the final days of preparing this year's entry, "Frau Pow 5," before shipping the robot Feb. 20 to the first of two regional FIRST Robotics Competitions in the United States -- one in Orlando, Fla., in early March and another in Las Vegas in early April.
"Last year we had problems with the weight of the robot," said Pendzich, explaining that besides costing about ,900 to weld the robot, RoboWarriors spent some 12 hours once it arrived in Las Vegas for the annual competition stripping down the robot to make it meet the weight requirements.
Having learned from that experience, this year's entry is lighter, and members of the team are convinced it stands a greater chance of scoring higher among the more than 2,000 international teams expected to compete.
"We have a much more simple design -- a lot fewer parts this year," said Eli Kraft, a high school senior and RoboWarriors veteran.
"Programming-wise we're 1,000 times better than we were last year," said Brian Barnes, a virtual high school computer programming teacher for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe and volunteer mentor with the team.
Barnes, who got involved with RoboWarriors last year, said as a first-timer it was an overwhelming experience. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into last year. … One of my students brought me on board last year and it intrigued my interest. I wanted to see what we could do this year."
"I encourage my students to sign up and actually get real-world experience as far as programming," he added.
While Barnes and several students were busily working out programming features of Frau Pow 5 in Pendzich's high school lab classroom Feb. 14, other students and adult volunteers were hard at work tackling the equipment and mechanical aspects of the robot.
"I wanted to participate with my son," said Jim O'Connor, explaining that as the father of a high school junior he saw it as one more opportunity to share in a project with his son before the youth leaves the nest.
"We're building a platform to load and launch the discs," said O'Connor, adding that RoboWarriors offers a great learning experience for the participants.
"So far I've been working on all the extra stuff that goes on the frame," said 10th-grader Ashley Barclift. The second-year veteran said she was hopeful this year's entry would do well in competition. "It looks like we have a pretty good chance."
Barclift, who plans to study engineering in college, said being a part of the team was outstanding preparation. "Last year was a lot of fun -- working as a team and learning new things."
Having the opportunity to compete with thousands of students from all over the globe was equally fulfilling, she said. "It's great making new friends and learning their strategies."
While this year's challenge includes shooting flying discs and climbing a pyramid-shaped structure among other tasks, members of the team were hopeful the RoboWarriors would do well.
"Originally we thought it would be a lot more challenging," said Kraft. "But shooting a flying disc isn't that much different than shooting a basketball (as in past years)."
Zachary Cassou, who was among a group of students working with Barnes on fine-tuning the "brains" of Frau Pow 5, said he got involved after taking a programming class.
Cassou, like many of the past and present RoboWarriors, will take the hands-on experiences he has accumulated, and put them to future use. "I'm planning on going to college and majoring in some form of engineering or becoming a teacher."
"The purpose of the competition is to create engineers by putting them in touch with professional engineers," said Pendzich, explaining that having professional mentors who coach and advise the team members, and seeing a high percentage of students go on to careers in the field is rewarding.
RoboWarriors also play a vital role in supporting DoDDS' efforts to promote its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives.
"We explore math in a real-world environment and they can take that practical experience back to their math classes and better understand what's going on," Pendzich said.
"Our superstars from past years have gone straight into engineering in college," he said, adding that one student last year moved on to study engineering at West Point.
"We're still trying to get more students to take advantage of the $16 million available in scholarships (in the field)," he said. "I fully expect all of these kids to have the skill sets commensurate with what's required to go on to be an engineer."
Students also learn about fund-raising and planning during their weeks of preparing for the competition. That includes raising thousands of dollars to send participants to the competitions in Orlando and Las Vegas.
"We're taking 10 to Orlando and 17 to Las Vegas," said Pendzich, explaining that as in past years, the students will have the opportunity to learn about other aspects of engineering while attending the competitions.
"We'll do some fun things again such as a behind-the-scenes tour of Universal Studios to see how things work," he said, adding that, while providing an entertaining diversion from the competition, similar tours provide an inside look at how science, math, technology and engineering are used in everyday life. "I'm a professional educator and I look at almost every aspect of my life as to what can I do to improve student learning."
As in past years, local community members can follow the competitions online. Pendzich said he will share the links to live feeds as soon as they are available.