Geared for Competition

For the next few weeks, dozens of Tulsa area high school students will spend many of their waking hours working to make their robots winners in an international engineering competition.
And much of their sleeping time, too
“You dream robot. You wake up thinking robot. There are many times that you sit up straight in bed at 12:45 a.m. and you think, ‘I have it, I know what to try now,’” said Phyllis White, Tulsa Technology Center pre-engineering instructor.
White is team leader for the TTC Riverside Airport campus FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition team No. 2004.
The team, composed of eight high school students from several schools who participate in TTC’s extra curricular FIRST Robotics program, is one of 1,686 teams from 23 countries participating in the competition this year. More than a dozen teams from northeast Oklahoma participate.
The teams are on a short schedule. They picked up their robot kits in kick-off events Jan. 3, and they have until Feb. 17 to get their entrants in shipping crates and headed to one of 44 regional competitions.
The regional contests precede the 2009 FIRST Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Since 1989, the competition has grown from 28 teams, now competing for $9 million in scholarships at the season’s pinnacle event.
For the second year, Oklahoma City will host the Oklahoma Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at the Cox Convention Center, Feb. 26-28.
That gives the teams a little more than six weeks to brainstorm solutions and build robots geared to gain the most points in a three-on-three contest where they are allied with randomly selected partners.
Kyle Lawler, student team leader of the TTC Riverside team, the Thunderducks, knows that means devoting extra hours to the project.
A Union High School senior who intends to pursue an electrical engineering degree at Oklahoma State University, Lawler said the pace will pick up from the team’s current three-days-a-week meeting schedule.
“Later on in the build season, we will have a lot of stuff to get done, but we won’t have enough time, so we are in on Saturdays or other days of the week,” he said. “I was here 12 hours straight once.”
Lawler has been on the team for the three years the Thunderducks have competed.
White expects additional students will join the team.
“We will probably have a few more join in now that we are into the build,” she said. “Last year, we had a team of 20 and traveled with 15. This year, we are down a little bit because we had some graduate.”
Across town in the robotics classroom in the Tulsa Engineering Academy at Memorial High School, Team No. 932, the Circuit Chargers, forms its 38 participants into three tiers of work designations, said senior Brent Anthony, team president.
Senior Roy Dayan is vice president of robotic design, senior Victoria Stiles is VP of marketing and junior Russell Shook heads up production.
The Engineering Robotics 1, 2 and 3 classes are built around the annual FIRST Robotics and BEST Robotics Inc. competitions, one each semester, said team leader and robotics teacher Lane Matheson.
As a result, these students have a lot of experience in robotic competition. Dayan, who wants to pursue a degree in applied physics, participated in the robotics competitions while a freshman in the introduction to engineering and engineering design classes. He is now into his eighth contest.
“We are learning engineering through hands-on activities through these competitions,” he said.
They know the routine and even answer questions as a team.
As soon as the team picks up their robotics kit, “we go right into brainstorming,” Stiles, who wants to pursue a medical career, said.
“We follow a pretty strict guideline,” Dayan said. “It’s the engineering design process laid out by (engineering instructor) Alan Gomez, and it’s 12 different steps – it’s brainstorm, find a solution …”
“We start out by finding the criteria, and then we analyze any kind of solutions or any kind of strategies, which we did last night with our mentors,” Anthony said. “Today we are going to show our ideas to the whole class and tomorrow will be brainstorming actual designs.”
Matheson and her husband Joe, who is also a Memorial robotics instructor, keep the robotics lab open evenings for three hours and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays to provide plenty of opportunities for students to work on projects.
“It’s a tiring solution but the only solution we have come up with to prevent kids from not being able to participate because of their schedule,” Matheson said.
The last two years, the team has advanced to the Atlanta championships and last year, their efforts paid off with the chairman’s award in regional competition.
“This is the highest award that you can win in FIRST Robotics at the regional level,” Dayan said.
While the competition is geared toward generating interest in students in the fields of engineering field, the players who make a real difference with the teams are their sponsors and mentors.
Sponsorships come in many forms, said Harold Holley, Oklahoma regional director of US FIRST.
“They may have provided dollars, in-kind contributions of parts or complimentary services, like welding or machining,” he said.
Mentors include professional engineers, team leaders and even former students.
“We have many active graduates who still come back, or some people who are actually engineers,” said Dayan. “For example, we have two engineers who are really close to our team, Danny (Wieneke) and Tyler (Miller) from Nordam, they mentor all the time. I have known them for all four years.”
The Memorial team’s sponsors include The Nordam Group, AEP-PSO, Allied Fence Co., HE&M Saw, APSCO Inc., Memorial Robotics Booster Club and Tulsa Engineering Academy at Memorial High School. Nordam and APSCO are Memorial Partners in Education.
Matheson said the Nordam mentors give the students and opportunity to work with engineers in the industry.
“They help them think through their ideas, give them feedback, offer problem solving approaches, make recommendations, and when the kids are biting off more than they can chew, act as a sounding board,” she said.
The other sponsors, primarily financial backers, provide invaluable support with costs approaching $45,000 a year, she said.
“The entry fee to go to one regional is $6,000, to go to a second regional is $4,000 and to go to the championship is $5,000. We are already committed to two regionals, and if we win, we will go to a championship,” Matheson said.
Other costs include transportation, lodging, meals and T-shirts, and “we have a large team,” she said. “The kids and their families pay a good portion of that, but there is no way they can fund everything.”
Matheson said the team gets about $13,000 from long-term sponsors.
“We are having to piecemeal it together from other corporate sponsors, individuals, fundraising activities and so on, and the rest of it has to come from families,” she said. “It is getting harder and harder to find sponsorships. Robotics in Oklahoma has grown tremendously, and we have pushed that. “We have been out their recruiting high schools, but at the same time it is almost like shooting ourselves in the foot, because now there is more and more competition for that sponsorship money.”
The TTC Riverside team, with sponsors TMA Systems and Tulsa Technology Center, faces the same entry fees and “another $4-5,000 in transportation, meals and so on,” White said.
“In addition, you can spend up to $3,500 additional on the robot, and that doesn’t include what it might cost in order to build a playing field to practice on. So we are looking at between $15-20,000 a year to try to keep the program viable. So it’s very important that we get sponsors outside Tech,” she said.
She said having TTC as a sponsor and being located on the Riverside Airport campus gives the team an advantage when it comes to parts for their robots.
“There’s a machine shop here. We have the aircraft/aerospace programs here. We have composites, and we have sheet metal. And one of the things that’s really nice, any of the instructors that you approach and say, ‘Hey we need this,’ they are really excited to help us out,” White said. “It’s a real-world situation for their classes, too, because you have a customer coming to you, saying, ‘I need this. I need it now. How fast can you get it back to me?’”
The TTC Riverside team also has the benefit of an experienced mentor, Mike Powers, an engineer with Willbros Engineers, Inc. and a former Tech student, who worked with the No. 16 team based in Mountain Home, Ark., from 2001 until he returned to Tulsa.
Noting the decline in the number of students training to be engineers and the growing need for engineers because of retirements and increasing numbers of jobs, he sees a program like the FIRST Robotics competition as vital.
“We all share responsibility with our local communities to provide quality education in math and science a priority and to recognize the impact this education will have on the local workforce far into the future,” he said. “FIRST Robotics is a microcosm of the engineering world, providing a real-world example what will be expected of the students in a future engineering career.”
He said local companies can get involved in FIRST Robotics by sponsorship support through donations and by encouraging their employees to volunteer to mentor students.
“Contributing money and encouraging mentorship for local FIRST students will result in a supply of graduating students with a known track record for hire,” Powers said.

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