By Ezgi Ustundag
Iowa State University is known around the country for its high-quality engineering and design programs, including a top-rankedprogram in robotics. Over the past few months, it has become clear that ISU’s excellence in engineering has rubbed off on a group of nine Ames High students.
The FIRST Robotics Team Neutrino, which is sponsored by ITEC teacher Kent Jahn, won the top-seeded rookie award at the regional competition in Chicago on March 22-25. According to Jahn, the team was founded in fall 2011 when junior Sarah Pinkerton heard about the FIRST program from her grandfather, who is a robotics coach in Minnesota.
“Sarah Pinkerton and her mother got the program started at Ames High this fall,” Jahn said. “There were eight [engineering] students at Iowa State who inquired about how they could be mentors for a high school team, so we just got our groups together and formed [Team Neutrino].”
Although Neutrino has met year-round, team meetings and practices intensified in January, when the FIRST program announced the “game” the robots competing in regionals had to be able to complete. Once the game is announced, the team has exactly six weeks to program and construct the robot that will be used in the competition.
“Our robot was about three feet tall at most, and five feet is the limit,” junior and team member Matthew Coyle said. “We had base dimensions of 28 inches by 38 inches. Our shooter was a cannon-type thing powered by belting, which accomplished the goal of shooting foam balls into a basketball hoop. We also had a pickup mechanism and innovative swerve modules [used for steering].”
Jahn said the team was in the auto, metals, and woodworking labs every day from the time school is dismissed to late in the evening.
“We’ve been building from when school gets out to about eight or nine at night for the past six to eight weeks,” Jahn said. “We had to have the main part of the robot done, so we built two different robots for practicing and competition.”
Coyle said the entire team had to contribute to the building and programming efforts.
“Our meetings after school each day consisted of building components for the robots,” Coyle said. “Nick Royer was working on programming the entire time, but the rest of us were actually putting it together.”
Junior and team member Tyler Witte, who joined the team because of his interest in mechanical engineering, said Neutrino also had to prepare written materials for the regional competition.
“We also had two hours each day of getting papers written for the competition,” Witte said. “One is called the Woody-Flowers paper where you write about a specific mentor on the team. If you can win the competition for any of the papers, you can also go on to the championship.”
The robotics competition itself operates like the NFL or NBA drafts: after a day of competition, the top eight seeded teams get to pick robots from other teams to join their “alliances.” After alliances are formed, the teams of robots play in an elimination tournament that culminates with the championship match.
“It’s similar to a sports draft—they have to keep stats on other teams throughout the competition,” Jahn said. “For a rookie team, Team Neutrino was seeded eighth out of 53 teams. They actually got to pick robots to be with them on their team. At the end of picking, [Neutrino] was seeded fifth.”
Despite winning the top-seeded rookie award, Witte and Coyle said they were disappointed their robot did not make it to the championship match.
“The highlight [of the competition] was the fact that our robot did as well as it did,” Coyle said. “But it was also a shame that our robot did so well and didn’t make it to the championship.”
Although the team did not make it to the final stage of the competition, junior and team member Bojun Song said being involved with FIRST Robotics and networking with mentors from Iowa State has given him a pathway to summer internships.
“Because of [Neutrino], I might get an internship in robotics this summer,” Song said. “Being a member of the team has helped a lot in terms of [gaining new] opportunities in the fields of engineering and robotics.”
Jahn said he plans to continue sponsoring the program and is excited to see how the team members will use their competition and building experience in the 2012-13 season.
“We didn’t get to go to the championship, but I think they accomplished quite a bit in their first year as it is.”
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