Making the Perfect Robot

Monday, April 9, 2012

Group of City, West Students Prepare for Competition

By Lee Hermiston
The Gazette

IOWA CITY — They call themselves the Children of the Corn — a group of teenagers wielding scraps of sheet metal and power tools, lurking about in a lab on the outskirts of town.

But these kids aren’t a group of murderous youngsters like their namesake implies. They’re a group of sharp-minded students with a taste for math and science, brought together from City and West high schools with the common goal of constructing a robot.

The robot, tentatively nicknamed the Guillotine, is being built by the students for the USFIRST Robotics Competition to be held next month in Milwaukee.

‘‘It’s a way to get kids involved in science and engineering, that’s fast-paced and competitive, like sports, but for kids who aren’t interested in sports,’’ said Andy Veit, 36, a mechanical engineer with the University of Iowa College of Engineering and volunteer mentor for the program.

Held in a stadium with music playing, announcers booming and spectators cheering, the event gives the competitors an experience usually left for their more athletically-inclined peers. The goal, Veit said, is not necessarily just to win the competition, but to give the students a taste of ‘‘what you’d experience in the real world.’’

A real-world experience is exactly what these students are getting.

On Jan. 6 they received the details of the competition. From there, they had only six weeks to design and construct their ’bot. This past Sunday, five or six of the students were working in the UI’s Operator Performance Lab, trying to put the finishing touches on the robot. It was due to ship out Tuesday or else they would be disqualified from the competition.

The object of the competition is fairly simple. Each school must build a robot capable of grasping a plastic inner tube and placing it on a three- tiered rack for points. Each school will be teamed with two others and face another team of three schools. The team with the most points wins.

‘‘It’s getting kind of nervous,’’ said 17-year-old West High junior Max Bryk. ‘‘This year we’ve stepped it up a lot.’’

Bryk, the team’s captain, said he wants to study engineering after he graduates. He’s currently working parttime at one of the UI’s engineering labs. His experience on the Robotics Team, he said, has helped him learn more about his chosen profession.

‘‘I didn’t know half the lingo,’’ Bryk said. ‘‘Now I know all the stuff. I know what a 440 screw is. I know how to work on a team.’’

Not only are the students learning from the hands-on experience, but they are also benefiting from the mentoring they receive from realworld engineers like Veit or Rockwell Collins engineer Mike Pownell.

‘‘When I was their age, we didn’t have the technology,’’ Pownell, 30, said. ‘‘It gives you a chance to learn by doing engineering-type stuff.’’ ‘‘Their expertise is truly invaluable,’’ said Dominic Audia, an instructor from the two high schools who is sponsoring the club.

Win or lose, the students involved in the project just seem to enjoy the chance to use their know-how and put it to a fun and competitive use and learn something along the way.

‘‘We’ve learned a lot,’’ said 17-year-old City High junior Denton Margeson. ‘‘It’s really good experience to learn about electronics.’

Contact the writer: (319) 339-3162 or lee.hermiston@gazettecommunications.com