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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Teens Learn to Build a Better Robot at WCC

  • Students from area high schools like Jeffrey Hu are preparing at WCC for the FIRST Robotics competition.

In a WCC building off the beaten path are several large classrooms with cement floors and makeshift workbenches pushed up against the walls. In one space, boxes and bits of metal resembling an erector set are strewn across a 10-foot-by-10-foot mat. One by one, lanky teenagers in sweatshirts and jeans walk into the room to pick up where they left off before breaking for a noontime snack of pizza and pop.

On this wintery Saturday afternoon, over 20 high school students from Huron, Skyline, and Community high schools and Washtenaw Technical Middle College, a few helpful dads, and a couple of students from the University of Michigan and WCC are puzzling over the nuts and bolts of building a mechanical device capable of moving a ball from point A to point B. It’s a challenging task requiring complex mathematics, engineering vision, and three-dimensional thinking. The payoff is a competition banner in the FIRST Robotics District Competition scheduled for March 12-13 at Skyline High School.

“For the last four years, the College has opened its industrial technology facilities to high school students to help them prepare for the FIRST Robotics competition,” said Granville Lee, dean of Health and Applied Technology. “We also support students from Willow Run and Ypsilanti high schools, though they do a lot of the work at their schools.

“We see it as a wonderful opportunity for young people to learn about mechanical engineering and fabrication firsthand, skills that are still very much in demand despite the current struggles in the auto industry,” said Lee. “We believe in this experience so much that we have developed a course that prepares WCC students to work with them in the lab as mentors.”

This is the fourth year that Carl Vitullo, a WTMC student with a heavy class load and an application already on its way to MIT, has been on a team. “I saw the 2004 competition when I was in sixth grade and it seemed really interesting,” said Vitullo. “You learn a lot of good engineering concepts and a lot about trig(onometry) and physics because of the calculations required in this competition.

“For example, we’re designing an arm that goes up and down, so they asked me to calculate the required torque in order to have a drive that would lift it. You have to think about the angles required and how much weight there is to lift to get it to work the way you want it to. We overdid it in ‘07 and ended up twisting one of the joints; we under did it in ‘08 when we could barely lift it. This year I’m sure we’ll get it right.”

In an adjacent classroom, students gather in small groups around computers and run scenarios to make sure their designs will function properly. Surrounded by students at one station is Lisa Perez, a U-M senior in mechanical and aerospace engineering who is helping oversee the efforts of these enthusiastic bot builders.

“I was involved in the competition for three years as a high school student and four years as a U-M student,” said Perez, who wants to build industrial robots after graduate school. “It is definitely inspiring—I was instantly hooked. FIRST robots is good at getting students involved with people who want to be engineers or are already engineers. It’s great at giving them some hands-on experience.”

Not far from the computer stations are two thoughtful men examining the skeletal frame of a bot with a puzzled student. Nilton Barbosa and Michael Sanderson are both mechanical engineers who are giving up their Saturdays because their sons or their sons’ teachers asked them to help.

“My son and I saw this competition last year and we liked what we saw—it gave him motivation to join the team this year,” said Barbosa. “The facilities at WCC have been awesome. We have machines and we have the manpower. They (WCC faculty and technicians) taught us about safety and gave training courses to the kids so they know how to work with the machines. Without this, we might be in someone’s garage.

“It’s also a great opportunity to strengthen your bonds with your son or daughter. To build something together is a great thing.”

Sanderson said the students will accomplish a lot during the six-week project. “When they’re done they’ll have three robots that work together in different areas of the playing field,” he said. “Some pass, some diffuse, and some are defenders, all working together as a team.”

According to Perez, another part of the competition is getting out in the community to show what they’ve learned to get other students involved. “The experience makes them (students) want to find out more, which I think is the great thing about this program,” said Perez. “You’re always trying to figure out a better way to design something or better ways to make it move.

“The facilities here at WCC have been amazing,” she said. “They have pretty much every machine we could need, and their technicians have offered so much of their time to us, too. WCC’s been an amazing sponsor.”

To learn more about the FIRST Robotics competition, including the national championship in April, visit www.usfirst.org.

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