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Mobtown Beat

We, Robots

Baltimore City Students Build A Better Future Through Robotics Competition

Frank Klein
MAKING THE CIRCUIT: Patterson High School student Tavril Prout (right) tries to get "Big Cheeze 2" up and running as part of Team 1748, aka "The Lab Rats."

By Jason Torres | Posted 4/25/2007

In a jumbled, messy class room at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, 15 students hang out in a small science lab littered with mother boards and wires and blueprints. The students, hailing from Dunbar and Patterson high schools, along with science teachers Josh Gabrielse and Sharon Ball and mentors from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, make up Team 1748, aka "the Lab Rats." The kids are giddy but a little subdued; it's not really clear if the buzz in the room is due to the photographer snapping shots of a mini robot scurrying around and up and down a wooden ramp, or if the kids, mostly freshmen and sophomores, are still reeling from their impressive finish a few weeks ago at this year's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robot-building competition in Annapolis.

The actual robot the students entered in the competition is named "Big Cheeze 2"--"because we're the Lab Rats," a shy voice chimes in as it's introduced--and is basically a six-foot-tall, double-sided folded ramp on wheels that's capable of flattening out into a 15-inch incline. Part of this year's competition called for the student-designed machines from all over the region to lift colored, inflated inner tubes onto a rack and score points by creating rows in your team color. Teams received extra points if their robots left the competition area before the end of the timed event. During the three-on-three competition, Big Cheeze's ability to help teammates up its ramps and off the floor at the end helped the Lab Rats into the championship round, where they were eventually defeated by teams from New Jersey.

"We got medals for coming in second, and we got a special award at the end, too," gushes Josh Melton, a Dunbar High freshman who smiles nonstop as he discusses the intricate details of the wiring of the machine. "I didn't know anything really about robots or anything," he adds. "I didn't think it was going to be so fun, but this was crazy. I'm definitely looking into engineering when I go to college."

That's what Dean Kamen had in mind. The New Hampshire-based inventor of the first portable kidney dialysis machine as well as the two-wheeled hipster chariot the Segway, Kamen created FIRST in 1989 to encourage interest in science and technology among kids and inspire them to pursue careers in science, engineering, or math. The 16th annual robotics challenge was part of that. Jenny Beatty, a FIRST senior mentor for the Chesapeake region, calls it "a challenge for teams of students, teachers, and interested professionals to design, construct, and test a robot during an intense, short time cycle." It's a challenge that many people, including Dunbar physics teacher Gabrielse, didn't expect the Lab Rats to handle as well as they did.

"We thought it would just be a fun way to excite the kids about technology," Gabrielse says. "The kids that go to school in the city aren't coming in with the same background that a lot of our competition had."

The Lab Rats seem like typical Baltimore City high-school kids. They crack jokes, some are super shy, some make fun of others' inability to grow a moustache. Most of them knew nothing about robotics before joining the program; some of them didn't think that this would be a very "cool" thing to participate in.

Dunbar freshman Malcolm Evans acknowledges that at first he thought the program, begun in 2005 as an after-school club by Gabrielse at Dunbar, "was just for geeks. I took apart a remote-control car when I was little, but that was about it." But once work began on Big Cheeze 2, Evans says , "I put in the transmission, I built the ramps, and I was there in case any spare parts were needed. It's cool."

FIRST gives prospective teams of high-schoolers a time frame of six weeks to go from the initial design to final product, in order to give teams what Beatty calls "real-world engineering experience, including critical technical analysis, acquisition and application of engineering knowledge, technical fabrication, time management, teamwork." In preparation for the March 15-17 regional competition at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Lab Rats students worked between four and seven days a week, sometimes past midnight, for the six weeks leading up to their robot's big moment.

In addition to the teachers, the Lab Rats had help from professional mentors, including two engineers from defense contractor Northrop Grumman, Jared Ellis and Leroy Daley. "I wanted to do something in Baltimore," Ellis says of his volunteered time. "A lot of kids thought it was corny at first, but I think overall we were able to get them excited about what engineering is all about."

"It was fun to see them realize that we're all being nerdy, but we're all being nerdy together," Daley adds. "It ended up being fun, and you can see that from the finished product. Sometimes during the process, I had to rub my eyes because I couldn't believe how much they were actually `getting it.'"

Ellis says he understands that it's easy to assume that the pros handled all the tough stuff while the kids maybe helped screw some of the pieces together. "Honestly, the kids really did the work," he says. "Originally, they had a cool idea for an arm to take the rings and place them on the rack. We had to pull back from that because we knew, as professionals, how long that would have taken and how impractical it would have been. Eventually they figured out they could score more points with this ramp design."

"That's why it's been so awesome to watch," Gabrielse says. "I knew it was supposed to be an inspiration thing, it was supposed to just get kids excited, and as a result [FIRST] doesn't really care if the mentors build the whole robot or not, but we figured [the students would] learn more if they did it all by themselves. Honestly, I was just hoping that in a few years we could maybe make the playoffs, but they made it all they way to the finals. It was amazing!"

The 2006-'07 Lab Rats placed second in a field of 58 teams, including four other high schools from Baltimore City: Poly-Western, Mergenthaler Vocational, Homeland Security Academy, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Only one city high school took part at the event in 2004. "That's a significant increase considering how intense the competition is and how hard it is to raise adequate funding," Patterson High technology teacher Sharon Ball says.

Raising money to actually build the robot is a major part of the competition and considered as part the of strategy portion of the event. The Lab Rats acquired donations from the Army Research Lab, Northrop Grumman, NASA's Maryland Space Grant Consortium, and Morgan State University. No city school funds were allotted for the program.

"[Finding funding] has always been a challenge, and it's a challenge again now," Gabrielse says. "We don't have any money for next year, but that's part of the excitement."

The Lab Rat web page, www.team1748.org, bears a statement that reads, "It's all about spreading the joy and love of technology and science to the mainstream culture and getting teens on track to become the pioneers of twenty-first technological discovery. It's fun. It's fascinating. The Dunbar Lab Rats are here to change the world." Lauren Babcock, the shy Dunbar senior who wrote the blurb, handles all the public relations and press releases for the group. She had planned on studying writing at Villa Julie College next fall, but now says, "I'm definitely looking into studying engineering."

As the afternoon session at Dunbar progresses and the team members brag about what they did and show off their robot, no one sounds surprised when discussing the teams success. "They did this not because they were lucky, but because they were good," Gabrielse says. "One of our students [Sheyna Mikeal] got a full ride to Hopkins because of robotics. We're not getting all the students to that level but that's the goal." Mikeal is finishing up her freshman year at Johns Hopkins University and is a mentor for the Lab Rats.

"This was not easy," FIRST's Beatty stresses. "It's almost an impossible job to do, and they all did it and made friends and now hopefully are realizing that problem-solving can be fun. It's about exposing kids to technology and problem-solving--teamwork is the larger picture."

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