Renegade-the-robot is on a winning streak. The Mountain View High School robotics team piloted their latest machine, Renegade, to victory last weekend at a massive competition held at the San Jose State University Event Center.
The Spartan team, took home the top spot in the FIRST Silicon Valley Regional tournament on March 31. It was a big win for a team that has had a great year. The group will take Renegade to St. Louis at the end of April for the international FIRST Robotics Championship -- FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."
"I'm really excited for the championship," said Teresa Zarmer, the team's co-president. Zarmer stopped running around the Event Center for a few minutes to talk to the Voice about the four years she has spent with the team -- starting out as a match scout and now I run the scouting department," she said.
Zarmer began her tenure with the team in her freshman year at Mountain View High School. Back then she was responsible for scouting other robots during competitions.
She would watch the other teams compete from the crowd and report back to her team members in "the pit" -- where the engineers, electricians and computer programmers work on the machine in between bouts. They would take her information and make adjustments accordingly, while the drivers would formulate future plans of attack.
Now Zarmer coordinates all that, in addition to running fundraising efforts (the team's annual operating budget is about $30,000), runs team meetings, makes travel arrangements, and keeps the team as organized as she can.
"It is fun," she said. "It's quite complicated."
A small business
There are many on the team like Zarmer with roles that do not directly involve the building of the robot. The team has a treasurer, a secretary, a webmaster and public relations representative -- all of them students.
Each FIRST team is essentially a small business, explained Karen Mahoney, a member of the Silicon Valley Regional FIRST planning committee and public relations subcommittee. Science and engineering are not the only skills the teens get a chance to practice, although that is a large part of the process.
"It's lots of hours per week, but it's really rewarding," Nick Crispie said. As team captain, Crispie is in charge of the design and construction of the 60-inch tall, 130-pound Renegade. He oversees bringing the robot to and from the field of play at competitions, and he helps show new team members the ropes.
"It's loads of fun, especially when you're doing well," Crispie said.
This is his third year on the team, and he said he really has come to appreciate all the "real-world" problem-solving he has a chance to engage in.
"Probably the most important thing is management and working together to move toward a certain goal with a certain schedule in mind. The whole experience is really hard to get inside of school, so that's why this program is really valuable," he said.
The three-day long competition at the Event Center brought together about 50 teams from all over the state in head-to-head in matches of Rebound Rumble -- a game in which teams (or alliances) of three robots each try to avoid running into each other as they scoop up miniature basketballs and shoot them into one of three hoops. Two teams play at the same time on opposite sides of a court.
Extra points can be earned at the beginning of the match, when robots must shoot baskets autonomously (without the aid of human with a remote control), and at the end, when one bot from each team must balance on either end of a seesaw in the middle of the court -- a feat which requires the drivers of opposing robots and on opposite ends of the playing field to move their machines in unison and bring them to rest so that both ends of the seesaw platform are off the ground.
The audience let out gasps and cheers as the Mountain View robot first struggled, but ultimately managed to balance with an opposing machine on the teeter-totter at the end of two matches on March 30.
Some of those gasps and cheers were likely coming from Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was one of the competition's judges.
Wozniak called the FIRST program is fantastic, saying it gives students the chance to learn in a way they couldn't in school.
"You go out there, you come up with ideas, you build things -- ideas of things that don't exist yet. Nobody else fed you the plans. These aren't learned out of a book. It isn't somebody else's knowledge. It's your own," Wozniak said. "When you're done, you've done it yourself. That's so motivating."
Zarmer and Crispie are both looking forward to St. Louis, where they will have the chance to meet with more than 170 teams from all over the world, exchange ideas and maybe even make some new friends. And, of course, they hope to win it all.
More winning robots
"Renegade" is not the only competitive robot produced by local high school students. Los Altos High School's robotics team placed fifth out of 50 teams at the Silicon Valley Regional FIRST tournament.
In fact, FIRST is not the only competitive robotics league in which a local team is excelling. Green MacHHHHine, a robotics club for Mountain View, Homestead and home-schooled high school students, is gearing up to head to Anaheim for the VEX Robotics World Championship on April 13.
Green MacHHHHine -- whose H-heavy name comes thanks to the group's affiliation with the 4-H youth organization -- visited the VEX championship last year, as well.
VEX competitions are structured differently than a FIRST tournament. The Green MacHHHHine team's robot will play a different game than the FIRST robots do; and the robots are required to perform in an assortment of side challenges and tests.
As in FIRST, high schoolers participating in VEX learn a great deal about engineering and are also encouraged to learn web design and other 21st century skills, such as video editing. The Green MacHHHHine team was awarded $750 for placing first in a contest to see who could produce the best VEX educational video -- a short film, which teaches a robotics concept.