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Got robots?

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:27AM

It was bright and early on a Saturday morning, not long after Christmas, and six of the seven teenagers on the “got robot?” team were showing off new toys and making plans for the new year.

They pointed out the scorched windowsills at their headquarters, what remains from a fire that happened in the 1970s on that floor of the Elgin Technology Center, inside the Elgin Tower Building.

They paged through their engineering book — part manual, part scrapbook — chronicling the robotics challenge they’ve been working on the past year. As they flipped past plans and photos, they described the computer-aided designs they’d created and had manufactured, as well as their meetings with lawmakers like Chris Lauzen, now Kane County Board chairman;, and U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield.

They messed around with video game controllers, not unusual for a group of high-schoolers. Only those controllers didn’t direct their movements within a game, but the movements made by a robot.

A robot they had built and programmed themselves. A robot that will go with them this spring to the FTC World Championship in St. Louis.

“It took us six years to get here, so we’re very excited about that,” said Kristen McKellar, 16, of Elgin.

A lot has happened in those six years, and not just for got robot?, which has grown from a middle school team building robots from LEGOs in the McKellars’ basement to a championship-winning robotics team.

The team has seen a growing interest in robotics in the Fox Valley, mentoring up-and-coming middle school teams in the area, leading workshops and organizing a tournament this March for 15 new robotics teams started with a grant in Kane County. And schools have taken an interest in the field, as well, as President Barack Obama announced his “Educate to Innovate” campaign to encourage students to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I know the schools really emphasize STEM. This is doing it. This is hands-on. It’s a realistic way to learn the skills,” said Carol McKellar, got robot? mentor and mom of team members Kristen and Matt.

Educate to Innovate

In 2009, the president announced Educate to Innovate, a nationwide effort to move American students “from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade.”

That initiative came as American students in 2006 ranked No. 21 out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries, and No. 25 out of 30 in math literacy, according to the White House. And on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, fourth graders showed no signs of progress for the first time in many years.

And it came with an annual science fair at the White House and five public-private partnerships — a commitment of more than $260 million — to use media, interactive games, hands-on learning and 100,000 volunteers to reach more than 10 million students by this year. The Obama administration also gives preference to states that commit to improving STEM education in its $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” school grant program, the White House said.

The goal is to increase STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology. Other priorities include improving the quality of math and science teaching and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.

Robots to careers

That strategy may be working. Whole teams of students competing at a regional showdown at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia recently said they were headed into engineering and other high-tech fields.

“Our school is getting a lot more STEM clubs,” said Tarun Rajendran, a Naperville resident and senior at Waubonsie Valley High School. “There’s a lot more interest now.”

Waubonsie’s robotics team first started when just a couple students started drumming up interest.

“We just thought it would be really cool,” said teammate Vishal Jagannathan. “It’s impressive to see what the robots can do.”

Saturday’s competition was a first for the team, which now has grown to 10 dedicated students working on the design and builds. Members said they expect the team to get larger now that friends and classmates are getting a look at the first robot. “We have a relatively simple design,” Rajendran said. “It’s got an arm that tries to scoop up sacks, that can drop them in either the bins or the field goal, and it’s small enough to go on the opposite side of the field to distract opponents.”

At Saturday’s competition, though, speed appeared to be trumping robots that were merely small and nimble.

Dozens of robots flung yellow and green sacks around Plexiglass arena, but the Kane-DuPage robotics team, based out of Bartlett High School in Bartlett, was doing well, working up to seventh place about halfway through Saturday’s regional competition.

“I believe ours is the fastest out there,” said Mohi Ahmed, of the Kane-Dupage Robotics Team. “The speed enables us to get to the bags first, and also lets us block our opponents.”

Speed wasn’t the initial goal for the robot — “It just worked out that way,” said teammate Rishant Dwivedi — but it’s given them a definite advantage.

The Kane-DuPage team, which draws students largely from the Elgin School District U46 Academy of Science, Engineering and High Technology at Bartlett High School, has been working on the design and build the machine for the past three months.

More importantly, it’s given Ahmed and his teammates hands-on experience in engineering and science. Teammates said they were exploring biomedical engineering and computer science among other options for college majors.

Robots advancing learning, human

Students at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, where STEM fields of study have been the norm for two decades, have already seen first-hand what robotics can do, whether flinging sacks or serving those with crippling illnesses.

“We call this Robotics Advancing the Human Condition,” said team adviser Jim Gerry. “We take on a project ever year. The first one was the robotic arm, and the most recent build in that regard was a wheelchair lift project.”

About a year ago, then-principal Eric McLaren announced to the student body his diagnosis of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal disorder that kills nerve cells and has since robbed McLaren of his ability to move much of his upper body.

“He decided courageously to tell the students about his condition before he had any visible symptoms, believing they would someday help cure the disease,” said Gerry. “The robotics team looked at that and said, ‘what can we do?’”

Part of the answer to that question was a robotic arm, mounted to a table, that allows McLaren to feed himself — particularly important because ALS patients require extra nutrition to stave off weight loss.

This year, students are working to improve mobility for those in wheelchairs, In December, IMSA’s team unveiled designs for a lift that gives a person in a wheelchair an extra eight to 10 inches of range to reach counters, stove-tops and hotel beds.

The team, which includes 53 students, mostly from IMSA, but also schools like Yorkville, West Aurora and Aurora Christian, which do not yet have their own robotics teams, is in its fourth week building its competition robot. It will likely be the size of a small person when it’s done.

“Learning engineering, design, programming — that’s the primary goal. And then they get to go to tournament,” Gerry said.

After competition season, it’s back to the wheelchair lift, which will likely be unveiled in May.

On the world stage

Early last month, most of Kristen’s got robot? teammates still proudly were wearing medals around their necks at practice, the INSPIRE award the team had won in early December at the FTC State Championship in Chicago, catapulting them onto the world stage.

That’s the highest award in FTC, an international nonprofit program to build science, engineering and technology skills, according to got robot? head coach Michael McKellar. And it means the community-based team will be one of the 128 — out of 2,500 FTC teams around the world — to compete at the FTC World Championship April 24 to 27 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

Team member Noah Kaldenberger, 15, of Elgin, said he “didn’t know what to think” when the award was announced, except, “We’re going to World’s!”

“All of us burst into tears — tears of joy,” Noah said.

He took a ribbing on Facebook when he posted that reaction, he admitted. But, he said, “I’m competing with the world’s best. What did you think I was going to do?”

Noah, a sophomore at Larkin High School in Elgin, joined got robot? about two years ago, after the team had helped start up and mentor his robotics club at Abbott Middle School, also in Elgin.

He never really had heard of a robotics club, but he loved it. And it turned out, he was really good at it — especially computer-aided design, something he learned once he got to Larkin and began taking engineering classes through U46’s Project Lead The Way program.

It was Noah who designed the “gripper” at the end of his team robot’s arm: a metal piece that opens, then shuts in a C-shape around two plastic rings hung from pegs along the edge of the team’s 12-foot square field.

The team’s challenge this year — the game FTC teams must design robots to play at competitions — is “Ring It Up,” a cross between Tic-Tac-Toe and Connect Four. The teams form alliances with some teams and compete against others, scoring points as their robots hang plastic rings on a rack made of PVC piping.

The team had recruited 16-year-old Marcos Marquez, a homeschool student in St. Charles, and his strategizing skills about a year ago for this game, something he had demonstrated playing air-soft, like paintball, with Matt.

Marcos didn’t know much about robotics then, he said, but now, “I’m learning programming and a bunch of things I’d never be exposed to. With that, a lot of doors have opened for me.”

And it recruited Zoe McRae, 14, of Mt. Prospect, after competing against her previous team when both were part of the FIRST LEGO League. Zoe, a freshman at Prospect High School, was inspired by the team’s show of “gracious professionalism,” an important value in FTC competitions.

Being part of the robotics team also has opened up doors for her she “wouldn’t have found out through school.”

“It really exposes kids to the real world and shows them what’s out there,” she said.

And this April, that will open the world stage to these seven high-schoolers, just what the Obama administration and other STEM advocates have hoped for.

“We truly get to represent Elgin to the world. We will be on a world platform representing Elgin and the Tech Center,” Carol McKellar said.

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