Teresa Woods, a junior at the Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy in Tuolumne, started a student robotics club after attending a conference this summer. She and about 10 other students are now constructing a robot that they’ll enter into a worldwide competition.
“I really wanted to get this started here because I’ve noticed a lot of kids don’t see the excitement of math,” Woods said. “I’ve seen it come about. People have risen to the occasion.”
The students have a challenge to meet: As part of the international FIRST Robotics Competition, their robot must retrieve plastic rings from a container and then place them on a post.
The machine will be moving on its own, without a remote control, for part of the challenge — what the students call “the autonomous period.”
Beginning in September, “Norman” has commanded an increasing amount of the students’ time. They’ve built it from the ground up, from conceptual designs to programming.
The finished product will be about 18 inches high, with an arm that can extend upwards.
It already has wheels and can move surprisingly fast.
The team is using a range of math formulas to put the robot together from aluminum rods, gears and other materials. Most of the math centers on geometry, trigonometry and physics.
Some of the students in the club have learned to program the robot with help from parents and community members. They’ve also watched coding demonstrations in YouTube videos, according to Summerville High senior Kameron Hurst.
The type of code they’re using is called “RobotC.”
“It’s just a regular old C-based language,” Hurst shrugged.
Last week she and the other students worked on the project during lunch periods and afternoons, for a total of eight to 10 hours. They even spent part of Saturday assembling parts, programming and working on designs.
“They’re just getting more and more hooked into this,” said Summerville High teacher Richard Krueger, a former mechanical engineer who is a mentor for the club.
“They’re able to check out what it would be like to work in engineering,” Krueger said. “I never had that opportunity in high school or even college.”
The team has kept a detailed engineering notebook, now numbering about 60 pages, with their drawings and step-by-step descriptions of work. The practice is standard for real-world engineers.
Most of their materials came from the FIRST Robotics Competition, with FIRST standing for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science in Technology.”
The New Hampshire-based nonprofit hosts regional, nationwide, and worldwide contests for high schoolers who want to try their hands at building a robot that can perform tasks.
Woods said she and the other Summerville High students plan to enter “Norman” into tournaments in January and February. Their club carries the name “Orange pi Robearics,” after the school’s color and mascot and the mathematical constant pi.
Woods said she was motivated to start the club after attending an event at the California Institute of Technology that focused on women in science and engineering fields.
She was especially inspired by a conversation with Julie Townsend, one of the NASA engineers who drove and wrote code for the Mars Rover.
About half the students in Summerville High’s robotics club are girls. As a whole, the group has diverse interests. Some intend to pursue careers in math or science, but others — like Woods — aren’t sure yet.
Part of her motivation in starting the club was the fact that no math-centered clubs were available to Summerville High students. But most of those in the robotics club took Krueger’s “Honors Geometry and Design” class, which allowed them to explore computer-aided design.
To date, the students have spent about $2,600 on their robot, Krueger said. Front Porch, a Sonora-based technology company, donated a large portion of the money. Another contribution came from a Summerville High parent.