SoHi alumnus notes how times, activities have changed

Wave of the future

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

To every kid growing up bored on the Kenai Peninsula:

Fifteen years ago, I was trapped at Soldotna High School, sitting in the back of Mrs. Miller's math class, filling out the application for a foreign exchange program as a last ditch effort to escape from Soldotna. I was far too skinny to play sports, "Top Gun" had been playing at the local theater for six months straight, and I couldn't even get to Kenai, having flunked my driver's license test twice (make sure you get the redhead lady when you take your test). Let me tell you, there was nothing to do in that town.

Apparently this all has changed.

In March I ran into half a dozen kids from SoHi here in Seattle. They were competing at a huge event against 33 other teams -- with robots. Robots they designed and built themselves at school.

I watched these competitions and was completely blown away. This stuff has all the appeal of sports, plus you can have girls on your team, too.

The robots had to be able to run around a field, pick up soccer balls and put them into mobile goals while the other team's robots tried to stop you. This resulted in all kinds of crazed robot designs, and SoHi didn't disappoint. The Soldotna team came up with a pinball-machine-type hopper for the balls that Ginny Ruffner (a contest judge and world famous glass sculptor) accurately described as "very Rube Goldberg."

Soldotna won the special Delphi "Driving Tomorrow's Technology" creativity award for that, and a brilliantly conceived arm that could grab onto the goal and pick it up, which no other team had done. The added torque from this feature enabled them to drag the goals around, even with two other robots attached.

Teams had six weeks to build their robots during the coldest months. The results were shipped off to Seattle for the regional contest. When the teams arrived, there were two days packed full of competition. Each team competed in 11 matches. SoHi's team scored a record 135 points in one of their matches; an average score is about 45 points.

SoHi's team raised money from NASA, Phillips and some local businesses in order to participate. Spenard Builders Supply let them shop for parts free of charge. They got a ton of help from teachers Dana Edwards and Bill Carlson and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

The team is back home and their robot is on its way. The students are available to demonstrate their robot and talk about their experiences at other schools. If you are bored, get a hold of one of these team members. These kids made a huge impression on me and all the judges I talked to. Every one of them will be happy to help you get on their team or start your own.

None of these kids knew what they were doing when they started this year, and you don't have to either. There is a ton of work to do from designing and building the robot to planning travel, raising money, shopping for parts, creating designs for T-shirts and posters, programming the computers, building the project Web site, researching the competition and finding engineers within the community to help out.

The tasks include welding, soldering, super-gluing, hammering, wrenching, thinking, collaborating, scheming, smashing, crunching and, best of all, no push-ups! Oh yeah, and somebody gets to be the driver, too.

No matter what you're into, this is worth doing. Engineering skills are worth a lot of money in the real world and robotics is a great way to get started. Learning to work together with a team to build something is crucial experience that you will use no matter what you do with rest of your life -- assuming you decide not to stay bored that is.

Paul Holman, according to his own description, was once the supreme computer geek of SoHi, has since obtained a driver's license and escaped. He makes a living implementing science fiction and spends his free time collaborating with other nerds to take over the world and make it better. He can be reached at

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