The 21st century is here, and the robots have come to town.
The Kenai Peninsula's first robotics project got under way last week, when high school students and teachers unpacked a components kit for the 2002 FIRST Robotics Competition. Enthusiasm was high as they dug through the bubble wrap, pulling out software CDs, cables, sensors, joysticks, fans, wheels and assorted other high-tech widgets.
The Kenai-based Challenger Learning Center of Alaska worked with two Soldotna High School teachers to bring the project to the central peninsula.
SoHi junior Joseph Blanchard, who is taking physics and chemistry this year, was eager to get started.
"I just love robots," he said.
Since the time he was a little boy he read about them and fantasized about designing and using them as a possible career.
"This is my first opportunity to build something real in the world of robotics," he said.
Other students are just as jazzed.
"It sounded really interesting. I haven't done anything like this before, and I think I could learn a lot," said junior Chrystal Carlson.
She is taking physics and hoping her past studies of drafting will benefit the team during the design work.
"People are getting really excited," she said.
The competition has three parts: a Web page, a computer animation and a robot, which must perform specified tasks to earn points in competition. For now, the central peninsula team plans to concentrate on the robot.
The team is still recruiting members. It will meet every day after school at Soldotna High School, but students from any school may join.
"They are welcome to participate and join us," said Bruce Rife, one of the teachers organizing the project. "This is by no means a SoHi team. It is a central peninsula and Challenger team."
Blanchard admitted the contents of the three cases look daunting. Each part is intricate, and the task of assembling them into a working machine will be complicated and involve every type of scientific discipline the students have encountered so far, he said.
The team may purchase up to $1,000 worth of additional equipment to supplement the kit supplied with the contest.
The robot's job will be to play an intricate ball game, involving partnering with one other robot against two opponents, putting balls into a goal and moving the portable goals around designated areas.
"We can't hurt the other robots," Blanchard said. "It's not like Battle Bots on TV.
"The plan is up to us."
The initial group of participants talked among themselves and put together a preliminary plan to focus on a flexible design, perhaps with interchangeable modules, and to delegate tasks.
"Everyone in here has special talents," Blanchard said.
The students only have six weeks to complete their machine and ship it to Seattle for the competition. The regional event will be March 28-30.
Getting started with the robot project involved an element of serendipity.
Rife, who serves on the board of the Challenger Center, was at a math and science education convention in Anchorage. The Challenger Center's booth ended up next to the booth for the Alaska Robotics Education Association, which is promoting the robotics competition in Alaska. It helped organize the state's first team, which took Alaska's first student-built robot, named FrostByte, to competition two years ago.
This year, six Alaska teams are entering.
The FIRST Robotics Competition was started by inventor Dean Kamen. Its first year, 1992, involved 28 teams in a gymnasium in New Hampshire. In 2002, more than 650 teams are signed up to compete in 17 regional events.
Challenger Center Executive Director Steve Horn asked Rife, who teaches biology at SoHi, if he knew anyone interested in putting together a Kenai Peninsula team.
"I didn't have to think too long," Rife said with a laugh.
Rife teamed up with Dana Edwards, who has a background in mechanical engineering and teaches math and physics at SoHi. They got an enthusiastic response from their advanced students.
"The goal is to have this be sort of a seed team, and maybe next year there will be two or three (peninsula) teams," Rife said.
The Challenger Center lined up support from NASA and the community.
To pay for the equipment and entry fees, the organizers won $6,000 in grants from
NASA and a generous donation from Dr. James Zirul. The teachers and the Challenger Center will be looking for more sponsors so more team members can attend the Seattle competition.
If they win in Seattle, the students will be invited to the finals in April at the Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. Students who do well also qualify for numerous scholarship opportunities.
Rife noted that the competition emphasizes collaboration and camaraderie more than dividing winners from losers.
"They just want to get kids excited about robotics and science," he said.
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