Robotics: A sport of the mind

Mar. 29, 2013 @ 04:35 PM

There’s a workroom tucked away on the third floor of South Caldwell High crowded with power tools and computers, and covered with a fine layer of sawdust.

In that room, students are building robots.

We’re not talking Rock ’Em Sock ’Em. Over the course of four years and four competitions, South’s robotics team has designed and created human-sized robots capable of completing complex tasks.

This year’s robot could toss Frisbee discs. Another threw basketballs.

Those tasks are set forth by the FIRST Robotics program, an international organization that counts South as its only Caldwell County member.

The program is a science teacher’s dream, said Michael Bingham, who brought the program to South four years ago.

“I couldn’t have asked for better,” Bingham said. “You’re solving problems. You’re learning new skills. It’s a blast.”

Bingham, along with three volunteer mentors, leads 18 high school kids in a year-round frenzy of robot-making.

It's competition season that feels most like a pressure-cooker, the kids said, but the pace didn’t slow down much when they returned from competing in Raleigh on March 16.

The team spends the off-season – summer months included – training new members, troubleshooting, and doing research and development. They’re constantly paring down individual parts of the robot until they’re faster, lighter, smarter – better.

This year, the team used Blender – a computer-aided design-and-animation program – to build a simulation of the games. Ask them, and they’ll show you how to work it – how to move the little, simulated robot with the letter keys and make it shoot Frisbees on the screen.

It seems simple until you remember it was hand-coded by high schoolers.

Walk the halls of South and you won’t find many kids who even know anyone's building robots upstairs.

But there are kids who found out, and you’ll meet them if you walk upstairs and take a left.

There’s freshman Blair Hollar, who, when his friends ask him what the robotics team does, explains simply: “We build robots.”

There’s junior Andi Willis, one of only a handful of girls on the team, who serves as co-president.

Then there’s senior Jonathan Gillen, who didn’t know, for most of his high school career, that any of this existed. When he found out this year, he joined up.

Students who enter the little workroom upstairs can find they’ve been bitten by a bug that never really leaves them. Alumni are studying engineering in programs all over the state, and many plan to follow in their footsteps.

Co-president Kaleb Watson will study engineering at UNC-Charlotte in the fall. Mentor Noah Christie joined the club when it started and now works as an engineering tech while he completes his degree.

The program is so addictive because it turns traditional learning on its head, Bingham said.

“They give you some of the best equipment and skills in the world,” he said. “And they want you to learn how to use it.”

Walk outside and down the hill, and you’ll see all the usual spring teams practicing. Bats are cracking. Sneakers are hitting pavement.

But up here, it’s a sport of the mind – and it’s not about the trophies you might take home.

There’s a neon-yellow flier in the little workroom, fighting for space on a bulletin board cluttered with quotes, reminders and inside jokes.

On the flier is a phrase credited to Bill Miller, who directed the FIRST Robotics competition until 2012.

“Winning is nice,” the flier reads. “But winning is for the day. The learning is forever.”

Glance outside, then back in at these kids again.

You can’t imagine any of them would disagree.