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The Day I Spent With Robots—and Some Very Smart High School Students

"Chantilly Robotics 612" shows that maybe—just maybe—there is hope for us yet when it comes to math and science achievement in the United States.

So, can a reasonably intelligent 50 year old man such as myself, feel intimidated by high school students barely one-third his age?

Well, as I found out yesterday...the answer is yes!

I spent all day Friday, March 30th at the annual DC First Regional Robotics competition held downtown at the Washington Convention Center. I was there to cheer on "Chantilly Robotics 612", based out of . Consisting of about 60 annoyingly intelligent high school students, "6-12" was there to compete against sixty-two other teams from as far away as Michigan and Indiana, in the "Rebound Rumble" robotics competition (more on that shortly). My son, John, is a member of the team, who I think, deserve at least some recognition for their accomplishments.

Given the amount of well-deserved coverage high school athletes receive in the paper, on TV and on the internet, I thought that these students, whose achievement is just as impressive in my book, at least deserved the attention one blogger could give them. So with that in mind I drove downtown to take in the action, talk to team members about why they got into robotics, find out what their plans were for the future, and to learn a bit about the robot itself. That was my intention anyway!

Arriving just in time for "6-12"'s first match, I was greeted—rather reluctantly I think—by my son, who gave me a quick rundown on what I was looking at, and then left alone to observe the action in the section of the stands mostly populated by geezers...uh...losers...uh...parents. Secure up until then in the intellectual superiority all parents feel over their kids—which never completely goes away by the way (I'm sure Mrs. Einstein always thought of little Albert as her baby)—it was at this point I had the first inkling that maybe this wasn't entirely true. The complexity of what these high school kids were tasked with doing hit me. Not only did they have to build robots that could perform incredibly difficult and intricate tasks, but they also had to derive a strategy for winning that not only included beating the competition, but cooperating with them as well.

For this year's event, called the Rebound Rumble, each robot had to be able to do several things. First, it had to pick basketballs up off the floor, move them into shooting position, maneuver the robot into firing range, and shoot them into baskets placed at different heights. For the first 15 seconds they had to do this autonomously, with no human intervention. Then, under human control via joysticks or other mechanism, it had to continue picking up basketballs, often rolling around the floor, maneuver and shoot. In addition, robots could earn points by balancing on a "bridge," which was in reality a large platform placed on a fulcrum. It required precision control to get the robot to balance on one of these bridges without toppling.

With names like "WarBot," "Alien Cow Abductors," "Wild Cogs," "Carpe Robotum," and my personal favorite, "The Blair Robotics Project" (from Montgomery Blair High School of course), each match consisted of two "alliances" of three teams each. During the course of each match alliances had to temporarily cooperate with each other, try to score as many baskets as they could, work together to defend against the other team's robots, and get as many "bridge" points as possible. And, just to throw in an additional twist, the "bridge" in the middle of the playing surface was called the "cooperation bridge". It was here that one robot from each team had to balance so each could get qualification points that would help them move on in the competition. At the end of the day, the winning alliance  received the winner's trophy and the right to move on to the world championship in St. Louis.

Now, having grown up in the "R2D2" period of American History, the thought of a bunch of robots shooting baskets didn't seem all that impressive to me at first. I mean after all, it wasn't like they were destroying the Death Star or anything. However, suitably impressed with the competition aspect of the day so far, and getting a sinking feeling that I might not be as smart as I thought I was, I coaxed my son into taking me back to the "pit" area, where each team worked on their robots getting them ready for the next round.

I thought once I got back there I could assert my natural adultness to get some of these kids to talk to me a bit about what they were doing, why they were involved in robotics, and what they saw for their future. It took about two seconds to disabuse me of that notion. I could tell by their body language, and the looks I received, that if I disturbed them while they were working on their robot,  I would be on the receiving end of an intellectual tongue lashing that would make me wish I was back in kindergarten...at nap time! I haven't felt that intimidated by high school kids since..well since I was in high school. It was 10th grade science all over again!! With a shudder I got my son to escort me back to the stands, where I took in the rest of the day's action among my own kind—parents!

Team "6-12" did well, ending up in 15th place after the qualifying rounds, and making it into the quarterfinals. There, after two hard-fought matches, they were eliminated from the competition. A wonderful achievement!

What these kids managed to do should hearten everyone who thinks the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. These were some of the brightest, most joyous students I have ever seen. They were serious when they needed to be serious, and playful the rest of the time. At one point during an extended break in the competition they erupted into a huge flash mob, dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe.

It was a wonderful experience! I'm proud of my son for his involvement, I'm proud of all the "6-12" team members, and I'm proud of every student of every team that took part. If kids like these end up being in charge of this country, we will be in very good hands indeed!!!

More info on Chantilly Robotics 612 is available here.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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