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April 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 08, 2005

The other robotics team The other robotics team (April 08, 2005)

Paly students place sixth at Silicon Valley competition

by Alexandria Rocha

In a small workshop near the back of Palo Alto High School, a group of boys and one girl sit around a table piled high with Legos. Another student meanders through the small space, thick plastic goggles attached to his face. Two more boys stand behind a keyboard-like object, only four black joysticks and a slew of buttons stand in place of keypads.

All are hopped up on soda -- two glowing vending machines occupy a corner -- and chocolate chip cookies. They chatter incessantly about holonomic drive systems, waldos, the upcoming Botball competition, and most importantly sponsorship.

Although their big chance for this year has come and gone, the Paly Robotics Team members still meet once a week in their self-proclaimed "hub for nerds."

Two weeks ago at the Silicon Valley Regionals for the FIRST Robotics Competition, they placed sixth out of 37 teams. Castilleja School, which competed for the first time, won the All-Star Rookie Award and will head to nationals in two weeks.

This year, the Paly Robotics Team has been somewhat of a silent operation, working in the shadow of a controversy across town. Its counterpart, the Gunn High School Robotics Team, was disbanded in January after four student members became entangled in two separate harassment cases.

Both schools' teams have competed and excelled at local and national competitions for the past decade. But this year, only the Embarcadero Road team built a robot and took it to competition.

The dissolution of Gunn's team, however, showed the community how seriously robotics students, parents and teachers take their program. For many of them, it is more than an after-school activity -- it's life.

Paly team members spend at least three hours in the workshop every day and full weekends as well. Most of their friends are on the team, so it's also their social outlet. Without batting an eye, many say engineering is what they'll do for a living.

"I got addicted, and it's hard to lose after a while," said member Faraz Jaffer, 16, a junior. "It is a big part of your school life. That's why we have a homework center (in the workshop) with books and couches and chairs, because we know we're going to be here a lot."

As Paly 2002 grad and current team mentor Noah Killeen put it: "It becomes the 'Cheers' of clubs where everybody knows your name. The bonds you make here last. I'm still friends with everyone from my team."

With limited engineering opportunities in middle school, most students stumble upon the subject in high school. Unless you're like team member Cameron Tacklind, 16, who grew up with a desire to work in the industry because of his engineer dad, who is one of the team's many parent mentors.

At the beginning of each school year, Paly holds a club day where the various student groups set up booths and solicit new members. The robotics team is always a main attraction -- members spend the afternoon racing robots around the lawn.

Dozens of freshmen are interested, but the challenge is getting them through the workshop's front door.

"You walk in here and all you see is a bunch of nerds looking back at you," said junior Clark Willison, 16, a third-year team member. "We're not normal kids. We're not going to the parties; we're not doing the alcohol scene. We're into building robots."

Being technically-inclined, self-motivated and a bit of a perfectionist are a few of the attributes most robotics students share. Many of them are straight-A students. An urge to pick up a wrench, eat pizza and stay up late also helps.

Unlike Gunn's program, there is no application process to join Paly's robotics team. The students who make it through the front door are in. If they have no clue about engineering, it's simple: "We teach them," Willison said.

The Paly robotics team, consisting of more than two dozen students, is divided into four areas of expertise: program, build, animation and public relations. The lines separating the sections are blurred and many of the students work in at least two of the areas.

Those in program and build do just that -- they design the computer program to control the robot and use tools and materials to build it. Students involved with animation create a 30-second commercial for the robot, which is entered into a separate competition. The teens in public relations are responsible for getting the word out and fund raising thousands of dollars.

Running a robotics team is an expensive endeavor and many teams seek sponsorships to operate. Besides the cost of materials, the competition entry fees are staggering. For example, the recent Silicon Valley Regionals cost $6,000. The national robotics championships held later this month at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta will cost each team $10,000.

"It helps us become entrepreneurs because of the fund-raising part," Tacklind said.

Jaffer, who heads the team's public relations area, added, "It makes you value money more because when you get just a little bit, $1,000, $3,000, you think, oh, that's just going to fund one regional."

The students' interests in building a superb robot outweighs the difficulty in funding the program. At their meeting last week, they made a commitment to raising $50,000 next year.

Besides the hefty competition fees, most of the funds are spent during the six-week build season, which occurs every year in January and February. The season starts with a massive kick-off event in Massachusetts.

Officials with the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Championship broadcast a two-hour program, explaining the year's event, to various telecasts around the country. Paly students attended one in San Jose.

This year's game required teams to build a robot that could move triangle-shaped objects systematically around an arena. The robots had to be fast and functional, weigh less than 120 pounds and be shorter than 5-feet-tall. The list of rules and regulations is 100 pages thick.

The teams then have six weeks to build a robot and ship it off for a FIRST inspection. Paly team members called this year's robot, "Phoenix."

"As in the bird that rises from the ashes because we did horribly last year," Tacklind said.

Phoenix's biggest flaw turned out to be the wiring of the arm. Team members ran the arm's wiring along the outside of the robot's frame and with every maneuver, the wiring was agitated.

"Designing everything before hand is a really good idea," Willison told the team during a debriefing session earlier this week.

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