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Robots abound

March 21, 2015

by Nicole Foster

Hundreds of screaming fans, mascots, painted faces, and blaring music are expected at any team competition, but there is something distinct about this one.  Taking over center court, a space usually reserved for basketball players, is a posse of robots.  They’re moving around the floor, avoiding collision while stacking recycling bins.  This is the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition and 27 Albany High School students have built a six foot tall competitor named Dumbo.

Coral Wessman-Froese with the robot/Nicole Foster

Coral Wessman-Froese with the robot/Nicole Foster

Saturday afternoon, after three days of fans cheering, dancing, and matching hair to school colors, the AHS Robotics Team showed off just how far hard work can get you: they placed sixth out of 36 schools.

The Robotics Team is comprised of teenagers who are committed to working as engineers during their spare time from September through June.  Three AHS teachers serve as coaches, Rich Kissane, Brent Cady, and Andre Castagna. Students also benefit from several mentors: Larry Ruff and Paul Schoch of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Jacob Ennis and Brett Morey from National Grid.

“This isn’t a class,” said Ennis.  “This is their own time they’re putting in because they want to be here, they want to learn, and they’re having fun doing it.”

The team isn’t for the faint-of-heart; they meet every day after school to train with 3D software, acquire machinery, welding, and photography skills, and compose a business plan, describing precisely how the robot will be built and with what materials.  Construction can’t begin until six weeks before the competition, when nearly 75,000 students worldwide watch a broadcast explaining what the year’s chosen game is.  “Recycle Rush” is 2015′s theme and all game pieces must be reusable or recyclable.  Once the robot is in production, the students spend an additional six hours each Saturday building, testing, and rebuilding.

Keith Smith, Coral Wessman-Froese, Jacob Ennis, Quamez Anderson, Tim Perrin/Nicole Foster

Keith Smith, Coral Wessman-Froese, Jacob Ennis, Quamez Anderson, Tim Perrin/Nicole Foster

Coral Wessman-Froese, 17, and Quamez Anderson, 15, are the team “drivers”.  It is their responsibility to block out pandemonium from the stands and maneuver the robot, completing tasks to earn points.  For 15 seconds at the beginning of each match, Dumbo moves independently of its drivers, moving recycling containers in to scoring zones.  The drivers take the controls for the remaining two minutes and 15 seconds, commanding Dumbo to move totes and stack recycling containers as Keith Smith, 17, puts “trash” in them, represented by foam pool noodles.

“My favorite part is solving errors after malfunctions,” said Anderson.  Since sixth grade he’s wanted to work with robots and plans to study computer science in college.  He proves to be a gracious teammate, planning to step down from his driver position after this year to give someone else the opportunity.

“I’m looking at him during the match, reading his body language,” said India Anderson of her son.  “This is his element.  Whatever he chooses to do, I’m there.”

Wessman-Froese has been on the team since freshman year and became hooked after her first practice.  She loves the direction in which robotics has guided her.  The experience has inspired her to become a physical therapist for stroke victims.  Robots will assist Wessman-Froese in the recovery of compromised limbs as they perform repetitive motions, helping patients regain strength and function.

“The Robotics Team is a great opportunity.  Anyone would love it,” said Wessman-Froese.

Though in direct competition, students from all the schools work closely and offer unending support.  Members from opposing teams don’t hesitate to hand over replacements if a piece of equipment or robotic part breaks.

“The students treat other teams with respect, learning a gracious professionalism,” said Coach Kissane.

“These kids are excited, and they should be,” said mentor Ennis.  “They’ve worked hard and the payoff is seeing the robot they’ve designed, built, tested and revised dozens of times work, and work well.”   -30-

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