Where nerds rule

Shalin Hai-Jew

By A Contributor

The robots wheel around the simulated moon crater made of white regolith, a slick polymer. This material simulates the low-traction effects of driving on the surface of the moon, with one-sixth gravity. These robots toss “moon rocks” (balls) into the trailers of the ‘bots of the opposing teams.

These smart machines take evasive maneuvers to keep their own trailers free of the moon rocks; they wriggle free from other robots that try to keep them pressed up against a wall or cornered-where they’re easier targets. In one part of the competition, their autonomous systems take over. Behind the controls are international high school students being groomed for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in a game called Lunacy. This is a modernist learning moment.

Neal Bascomb’s “The New Cool” follows multiple high school teams in their quests for engineering fame and glory for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition.

In this world, the rock stars are people like Dean Kamen, the “Willy Wonka” of scientific inventions who innovated various medical device technologies-including a portable kidney dialysis machine, portable drug infusion pumps, an intravascular stent to improve blood flow to the heart, a lightweight prosthetic arm responsive to pressure, a motorized wheelchair to allow the disabled to climb stairs, and the Segway Human Transporter.

A lifelong bachelor and founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation (in Manchester, New Hampshire), he lives in a hexagonal house built around a steamboat engine owned by one of his heroes, Henry Ford, as a paean to engineering marvels. He drives a Hummer; flies in an Enstrom helicopter, and pilots his own Hawker Beechcraft Premier plane (which can fly at more than 40,000 feet and is “the fastest nonmilitary single-pilot aircraft on the market.” He owns a private 3-acre island, North Dumpling Island, where he is Lord Dumpling, and where he and his guests comprise The Only 100 Percent Science-Literate Society.

In 1989, Kamen founded For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) and hosted international robotics competitions. His company makes millions in scholarships available for those pursuing science-based education.

The FIRST Robotics Competition enables a number of practical ambitions. It brings glamour to the sciences that is often lacking. It connects high school students to practicing professional engineers and scientists in the field. It enables universities and corporations to talent-scout.

By quantitative measures, the US is falling behind. “By their senior year in high school, a mere 18 percent of students were considered proficient in math and science. Among forty-nine industrialized countries, eighth-grade American students ranked in the middle of the pack on science and math tests. By twelfth grade, they ranked at the bottom, above only those of Cyprus and South Africa,” writes Bascomb.

“The New Cool” follows several teams in their development work by embedding reporters with them. The main protagonist team is led by Amir Abo-Shaeer, an instructor at The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, in Goleta, California. With his master’s degree in engineering, Abo-Shaeer focused on giving his students hands-on learning experiences and collaborations-not opportunities for the rote memorization of information. He worked to bring female students into his courses for gender balance.

This high school instructor also upheld high standards for behaviors in his classes, dismissing eight from the academy before the start of the senior year for failing to study, cheating on tests, using racial slurs, and once even dealing drugs in his class. He worked in his community to raise money for a 12,000 square-foot facility from which his school could launch summer camps, outreach programs, and a teaching center for other science faculty. As this narrative proceeds, it becomes clear why Abo-Shaeer won the 2010 MacArthur genius award.

The rules of the game are explained in a kick-off event that brought out some 42,000 high school students, replete with Mohawks and face paint and team flags.

Essentially, the field-of-play is a 27 x 54-foot rectangular area constructed of white polymer on which six robots would compete as members of a 3-robot team. The robots’ aims are to pick up moon rocks (balls) and deliver them to the trailers attached to each of the opposing robots while protecting their own trailers from taking on others’ moon rocks. There are also super cells which are worth more points. There are periods of tele-operated play with humans operating the robots and periods of automated play when the robots have to operate themselves with the same objectives.

The teams would work with a kit of materials provided by the host organization. This includes parts with “sprockets, wheels, gears, bags of bolts, a camera, extension cables, a compact fan, an air compressor, yellow tubing, big motors and small, a lazy Susan, a joystick, master links for chains, bearings, a 12-volt battery, a simple chassis, and even a pair of gloves, among scores of other items.” They would also have access to a software-driven control system and controller. Also, the team could add up to $3,500 of other materials for their custom-made robot. The top weight of the robot would be 150 pounds.

Their robot would have to be built in six weeks although they could continue working on their computer code up until the actual competitions. The competitors would have to make it through various elimination rounds and team pair-ups in order to compete into the finals. The team members would be guided by rules of fair play but also “gracious professionalism,” in which they would share information, tools, extra parts, and encouragement with each other.

To play this kind of game, a robot would need sensors to collect information from the environment. It would need mobility to move in a number of directions. It would need a way to identify opponent robots and chase them. It would need to be able to collect the moon rocks (balls) and target the opponent robots’ trailers. Such machines would have to be rugged. They would have to be powerful enough to escape being pinned against the side of the competition “crater.” To appeal to the audience and potential funders of the new technology building, the robot would have to be aesthetically appealing.

The designs are non-trivial. This becomes clear as the D’Penguineers begin work in five sub-teams: “programming, electrical, and three mechanical crews to focus on the drive train, intake/ball-storage mechanisms, and the shooter.”

The teams brainstorm various solutions to their challenges, and learn science-based lessons on-the-fly. For example, Abo-Shaeer gives the drive-train crew a lesson on transmissions, motor curves, and torque.

They conduct broad research to understand the advances in engineering. They plan trade-offs in designs. They learn not to commit to an idea too early until they have vetted the concepts. Then, they engage in hands-on design work to make the concepts reality. They practice communicating constructively with each other. The team members work with SolidWorks, a 3-D design software to locate the various machine parts and functions. They see how the virtual designs have to match real-world realities. Not only do they acquire new knowledge, but they share it among themselves-to disperse expertise throughout the team.

They learn the importance of fastidious accuracy, with margins of error to a couple thousandths of an inch for gears, and the absolute accuracy needed in software coding. They learn the importance of quality control-soldering and zip tying electrical connections, testing sensors, and running the robot in test environments.

They learn the importance of public relations because they’re in the middle of a fund-raising push (for $6 million total). They pitch the local media. They design uniforms and logos. All team members have business cards. They track their expenses and keep the books on their project. At their build space, they host grant finders and even a local legislator.

This work is not without human dramas as well. The group meets nightly for dinners for team unity building, with food provided by parents who provide snacks and encouragement from the fringes. Practicing engineers join-and some offer very real help along with criticisms, and others burn out on the collaboration because of conflicting expectations. One of the team members dies in a surfing accident. Another’s family is falling apart.

The methodologies of the D’Penguineers is engaging-from how they scout their competition and change their play strategies mid-stream during the various competition rounds-in order to maximize their play, their machine, and their teamwork. They troubleshoot and mend their PenguinBot in the pits.

They have built one robot for testing and have to put together a competition robot (with 1800 pieces).

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.

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