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Engineers inspire students through robotics competition


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With a loud whirring noise, the wheeled metal and wood robot expelled a Frisbee, which sailed with slow but steady spin for several feet before thudding into an interior white brick wall of a nondescript building near the Columbus Municipal Airport.

Local students and engineers, who had assembled the robot over the past few months as practice for the FIRST Robotics Competition early next year, erupted in applause.  

FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to inspire students to get involved in science and related fields and to teach them business and life skills including teamwork, problem solving and creativity. FIRST involves four levels of student competitions, separated by age groups. FIRST Robotics is the high school competition.

Sam Geckler, a mechanical engineer at Cummins who relaunched the local high school team, said FIRST Robotics is really about “creating science rock stars” and giving talented kids a compelling competition and the confidence to go out and improve their communities.

FIRST Robotics also is inspiring some students to consider engineering careers and teaching them business skills.

Kids grow up as experimenters and at an early age develop a scientist’s curiosity about how the world works, but over time that curiosity and inquisitiveness often fade, to the detriment of society, Geckler said.

FIRST Robotics can keep students excited about possibilities, he said.

Geckler said he got involved in the high school level program after mentoring some younger children who would have liked to participate in high school but couldn’t.

The competition begins with the announcement of the task that the robot will be asked to accomplish, such as throwing Frisbees, launching basketballs or kicking soccer balls. Teams then have six weeks to design and build a robot, starting with a kit — although they can upgrade certain components, such as the wheels, but not others, such as the motor. The teams then get together to determine which designs can best accomplish the given task.

The Frisbee-launching robot served to prepare the local team for next year’s competition. Shortly after the robot had thrown some of the Frisbees on a recent Wednesday, Chris Hahn, a Columbus East High School senior, stacked several Frisbees on the wooden platform at the top, but the feeder mechanism jammed when one of the Frisbees slid over the side of another. The launcher tried to expel the bottom Frisbee anyway, but because of the jam, a sprocket broke.

Those failures and other challenges are part of the process, the mentors said, as they prompt students to figure out how to fix and improve the design.

“I like the challenge,” Hahn said. “Things don’t go as planned. You have to figure things out.”

For one thing, he said, the team needs a less brittle sprocket. And better wiring to make it easier for the team to determine whether, during a malfunction, the wiring is to blame.

“Right now it’s a little bit of a rat’s nest,” Hahn said.

His physics teacher had told him about the program, and Hahn joined because he has had a long-standing interest in engineering and because he had participated in a FIRST Lego competition. His father, Michael Hahn, is an engineer at Cummins.

Sarah Brown, a freshman at Columbus North High School, said she especially enjoyed learning how to overcome challenges.

She said that she has been inspired to learn about engineering in part because her grandfather was an engineer.

“I’ve learned a lot of new things,” she said.

That included learning to work together and overcoming conflicts about who had the best ideas.

“Teamwork was a big thing,” she said.

Sarah said she has enjoyed the project, and it has reinforced her college plans.

“I definitely want to go into engineering now,” she said.

Rick Lewis, a design engineer at Cummins, participated in FIRST four years in high school and knows about the project’s capacity to inspire.

“This program is what made me an engineer,” he said.

First inspired, now inspiring Lewis said the program also provided him with experience in computer-aided design, exactly the kind of work he is now doing at Cummins.

HannahJoy Pheasant, an agricultural engineer who joined Cummins two months ago, said she, too, participated in FIRST Robotics in high school and asked about a program in Columbus before moving here.

She said that at a young age she developed an interest in figuring out how things worked, and in high school she appreciated working with her FIRST team mentors, most of whom were studying at Purdue.

“It was very helpful to get to know the students and what they were doing,” Pheasant said.

Jon Antilla, an electrical engineer at Faurecia, said he learned about the program years ago in Michigan when a robot was displayed at the school of his daughter, Chelsea.

“Been hooked ever since,” he said.

Antilla, who joined Faurecia in 2012, said he got involved in and even started FIRST Robotics teams in Michigan.

The program requires student creativity, problem-solving and a competitive drive, Antilla said.

From conveying general engineering skills — breaking a big problem into small pieces, ranking features by their importance, weighing pros and cons of various approaches — FIRST Robotics also teaches students the skills that businesses today often say are missing in applicants, including the ability to work in a team and generating solutions through innovation.

In general, Antilla said, the world needs more engineers to solve ever more complex challenges ranging from water shortages and food safety to clean energy.

Preparing for competition

Antilla said he wishes that such a program had existed when he was in school. At least his children are benefiting: Chelsea is studying psychology, and his son Nathan, who also participated in FIRST Robotics, is studying computer engineering.

Rachel Webb, an AFLAC agent and FIRST mentor, said the program goes beyond science and engineering in that it teaches students about setting goals, creating a business plan and figuring out how to market and raise funds for their robot.

FIRST Robotics essentially teaches students how to run a business, Webb said.

She got involved in the program after her son, Alex, a freshman at North, signed up.

Students and mentors still can sign up to participate. The team also is looking for sponsors. Some teams compete with budgets of $50,000.

Early next year, GalacTech, as the local team is known, will anticipate the assignment for next year’s robot. Team members then will have six weeks to build their creation, which will compete against about 50 others at the regional competition at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute in early March.

If successful, the local team may get to travel to St. Louis in April to compete against 400 teams from around the world.

Geckler said the program leaves students with a long-lasting impression about what they can accomplish, and the local program aims to put students on an escalator of ever increasing capabilities as scientists and business people.

“We like to change kids’ lives,” he said. “That’s what happens.”

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