East Lake High students gear up for robotics competitions

EAST LAKE — Krunch 14 may not be as brilliant as Watson, the Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer, but it has found its niche.

This robo has logo mojo.

Unveiled Monday night in the East Lake High School gymnasium to a bot-loving group of family members, students and educators, Krunch 14 extended its 8-foot arm and deftly picked up and hung colorful inflatable tubes, assembling them in the proper order of a triangle, circle and square to form a logo.

"Placement matters," said Jonell Gregor, 17, secretary of the school's robotics club. "If we get that right, we'll earn double points in competition."

The three shapes form the logo of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a New Hampshire nonprofit founded in 1989 by Segway inventor Dean Kamen.

Each year, FIRST sponsors a robotic game competition designed to instill a love of science and technology in young people. This year's game, announced Jan. 8, is called Logo Motion. It celebrates 20 years of the robotic competitions.

Only 28 teams participated in the first games; this season more than 2,000 teams are expected to participate in regional competitions in the United States, Canada and Israel.

The East Lake squad, formerly known as Team 79 but more recently as Team Krunch, has been competing in the games for 14 of the 20 years. Team members have racked up several impressive wins under the tutelage of faculty adviser Paul Wahnish.

In 2010, they finished second at the regionals in Orlando, where the team also won the Engineering Inspiration Award. They advanced to the quarterfinals of their division at the FIRST Robotics Competition Finals at Atlanta's Georgia Dome last April.

They feel their prowess will continue this year under the leadership of Patrick Macaraeg, a teacher in the school's engineering academy.

Soon, Team Krunch will compete in the Florida and Smoky Mountain regionals. The team hopes to qualify for the championship finals held in April at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

For this year's competition, each team's robot must maneuver down a 27-by-54-foot field. At the end, it must attempt to hang the inflatable tubes on pegs, preferably in the proper order for the logo.

Droids can earn additional points by deploying minibots to climb 10-foot poles during the last 10 seconds of the game. The robotics team from Palm Harbor University High School is helping the East Lake team build some of the minibots.

All teams were given a kit of motors, batteries and other components — but no instructions. They've had only six weeks to design, build and test their robots while working with mentors (most are Honeywell engineers).

More than 80 students are involved in East Lake High's after-school robotics club; most come from the school's engineering academy. About a dozen are girls. Some students work on the robot's mechanical, electrical and software systems. Others take on marketing responsibilities.

Robotics club president Joe Andre, 18, revealed the team's strategy for the 2011 competition: "We're going to traverse the field as fast as we can, grab the tubes and get them up there as soon as possible."

For the first time in the robotics team's 14-year history, the robot's lead driver will be a girl. Michelle Hawley, 17, said she was inspired by a summer robotics program she attended the summer before she started high school. Now she's hoping to get a graduate degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I showed up (at the first robotics club meeting) and got hooked," she said. "It's hard to get girls involved, but once they start, they stay."

East Lake High students gear up for robotics competitions 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 8:27pm]

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