Robotics team helps students bring engineering principles to life |

Robotics team helps students bring engineering principles to life

Emily Lavin
Staff Writer

The members of the Acme Robotics team are scattered around the room on the bottom floor of team member Ryan Brott's house, updating and modifying the robot they built. Leo Zlimen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Nevada Union High School, stands over a table, sanding down an acrylic case that will protect the robot as it moves around.

Kellen Bodine, 14, a freshman at Nevada Union, is tinkering with the robot, tightening some screws and marking where they'll drill to attach the protective case. Brott, 14 and a freshman at Nevada Union, sits at a computer, making sure the robot's programming code is working properly.

Nearby, Charlotte Coffin, a 16-year-old junior at Ghidotti Early College High School, sits next to a laptop; she's been working on updating the team's web site, Facebook page and Youtube channel.

The four teenagers are the founding — and currently the only — members of the Grass Valley robotics team that they say is the only one of its kind for high school students in the area. The students, who meet for a couple of hours three times a week at Brott's home, built a robot and participate in competitions organized by FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit designed to engage students in programs that emphasize science, technology and engineering skills and encourage innovation and critical thinking.

Acme Robotics was formed out of the students' common interest in those fields — and their inability to find an outlet to hone those skills anywhere else.

"I just love math, science and engineering, that's what I'm passionate about," Brott said.

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Coffin agreed.

"I've been sort of into programming for awhile, but there were no good opportunities around here to do that kind of stuff," she said.

The club, which formed back in October, was originally the idea of a peer of Brott's. But when that teen ended up not being able to commit time to forming the club, Brott decided to pursue the idea.

He enlisted the help of his mother Alicia, who started blasting emails to as many contacts as she could think of to drum up interest. Zlimen, Bodine and Coffin signed up; the team also connected with two mentors — Mike Oitzman, a Nevada City resident who works for Bay Area-based industrial robot manufacturer Adept Technology, and Nicholas Macy, a 19-year-old student studying mechatronics at Sierra College.

While the mentors are around to answer team member questions and help them adhere to a timeline, the students are the driving force behind the club, from designing and building the robot to devising strategies for competitions.

"It's hands-on learning," Oitzman said. "It's working with motors, working with electrical circuits, working the programming and integrating all of that together into a solution."

One of the first things the teens learned is that building a functional robot requires a lot of trial and error. FIRST has some rules about how team robots must be constructed — they cannot be bigger than 18 inches long, 18 inches high and 18 inches wide and must be designed to meet the challenges of the competition course, which changes every year.

This year's course is a 12 foot by 12 foot enclosed playing field where teams can score points in a variety of ways, including guiding their robot to place different-sized balls in cylindrical goal posts and to move goal posts into designated areas of the playing field.

But for the most part, it's up to the students to figure out what to build and how to construct it.

"It requires problem-solving, being analytical and prioritizing," Zlimen said.

Those problem-solving skills were immediately put to the test during the team's first competition in Folsom in December.

They discovered that the robot's two-wheel drive meant that if the robot got slightly lifted off the ground during the course of play, it would become immobile. They also found that the foam board case they build to protect the robot wasn't very durable.

So after the competition, they went back to the drawing board. They swapped out the robot's wheels for a different type that would have more traction, and gave each wheel an individual motor. They also constructed an acrylic case to better protect the robot.

For students, that trial and error process is a lesson in teamwork, Macy said. He noted it requires them to build trust and communicate effectively — not unlike other competitive teams.

"When something happens, they have to talk to each other and figure out what works best," Macy said. "You still get the camaraderie that happens with sports teams. But this is over a robot."

The team fared well in that first competition — they earned a special award from the judges recognizing the potential of their team, and were chosen by one of the top-performing teams as an ally, pairing with them for the final rounds of the competition.

"I was really proud of how well we did," Coffin said. "Going in, we weren't expecting that much out of it. It was surprising and really sort of gratifying."

It was an especially positive showing because the team was working under limited resources, said Macy.

Their four-person team was much smaller than most of the other 10 to 12 person teams. They were also working on a fairly small budget. The team members fundraised about $1,500 to build their robot and enter competitions, securing sponsorships from Telestream and AJA Video Systems; Macy said most teams work with a budget of about $4,000 when starting out.

The success bolstered the team's desire to keep building on that progress.

The students are hoping to recruit more members for the club in the coming months. They're also trying to connect with local companies that may be able to sponsor the team or have employees in the science or technology fields that are interested in acting as mentors.

And, they're gearing up for another competition Sunday in Elk Grove, where they'll have a chance to advance to the state championship tournament. As the students used the robot's controller to drive the machine around the practice field in Brott's backyard, they said they're optimistic about their chances, but feeling good about what they've already accomplished.

"It's just really fun to watch it all actually work," Coffin said.

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.