Minutes shy of a victory he could almost taste, Bryan Jenks watched helplessly as his dream sputtered and died.
The 17-year-old Lakewood High senior had just maneuvered his team's 130-pound robot onto the playing field for its final match. His blood was racing as the crowd cheered.
Suddenly, the robot spun off to one side. Then it came to an abrupt stop. The $60 battery that powered the $40,000 mechanical wonder had failed.
"It was a feeling of helplessness, because there was nothing you could do," Jenks said. "I stayed at the controls in case the power came back on, but it never did."
The battery failure was a heartbreaking setback for Jenks and his teammates. They had come to the Kennedy Space Center March 7 determined to bring back a gold medal in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Southeast regional robotics competition. Instead, they brought back a silver medal, and a renewed determination to win the gold at the FIRST national robotics competition next month in Orlando.
"Coming up in second place and being so close to the gold, you definitely have the hunger," said Jason Schuler, 17. "I've been in this three years and we've gotten closer and closer to the gold each year. That's the ultimate prize. Regionals are nice, but nationals are what it's all about."
Since 1995, when Lakewood teams began competing in the annual tournament in which students use imagination and skill to create a robot that meets a challenge, they have been winners, said teacher-adviser Paul Dickman. They won first-place honors at the past two Southeast regionals and advanced from ninth to fifth last year at the nationals.
But the competition makes them winners in other ways, Dickman said.
"The idea is to get kids excited about science and mathematics. What I like about it is that it takes what you do in the classroom into real life."
The FIRST competition began in 1992 with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gymnasium. This year, 20,000 students from more than 600 teams in the United States, Canada, Brazil and the United Kingdom worked with professional engineers to build a robot in six weeks using a standard parts kit. The robots face off in a series of regional challenges before the students test their skills at the national championship.
For Lakewood's Team Heatwave, the adventure began when Dickman returned from Novi, Mich., in early January with this year's challenge: Build a robot no larger than 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall. Program it to pick up soccer balls, store them in goals, and then position the goals on a playing field about half the size of a basketball court.
Assisting them in the challenge and providing handson mentoring were engineers from Baxter Healthcare of Largo, the company that has sponsored Lakewood teams since 1997. The company picks up the $50,000 tab for registration fees, prototyping, and the robotics kit. The students pay $275 each for uniforms, transportation and lodging at the competitions.
This year's 53-member student team broke into subteams to share the workload. A construction group built the robot from a 170-item parts kit.
Although most team members came from Lakewood's Center for Advanced Technologies, Dickman said, all students were encouraged to participate. They met at Baxter every day after school until 10 or 11 p.m. and stayed until after midnight on Fridays, returning at 10 on Saturday mornings.
"There are people who quit their jobs to do this," said Stephen Kowski, 16. "Everything else is structured around robotics."
Kowski, a junior, is a third-year team member. He said being part of Team Heatwave has taught him things he wouldn't have learned in the classroom.
"I wasn't a person who did a lot of handson projects," he said. "I worked mainly on the computer. Once I got into it, I learned more about tools and how to use them. I really learned how a robot is built and engineered."
He also learned how to work with other people. As strategy team co-captain, his job is to talk to members of other teams, gather information and build alliances.
Once they get to the competitions, a team's pit crew is vital to its success, said Nicholas Popp, 17.
"We have to keep the robot running. It's like in a car race," he said. "The pit crew makes sure everything is tightened down and ready for the next match. Sometimes we have a half-hour to go over the robot, sometimes only 5 or 10 minutes."
The time restriction was what caused Lakewood's problem at the regionals. Racing the clock to change a broken piston, the team faced disqualification if the robot didn't return immediately to the playing field.
"We were hurrying back and forth in the pits trying to get the tools we needed," Popp said. "In the jumble of it all, we didn't change out the battery."
Things will be even tougher when the students get to the next regional competition in St. Charles, Mo., on April 4, which Dickman arranged with the help of a $6,000 NASA grant. They won't be able to bring their 800-pound toolbox on the plane, so they'll have to choose the tools they absolutely need.
With their robot securely enclosed in a plywood crate on its way to Missouri, there isn't much the team members can do to prepare for the next competition. Strategy co-captain Ron Glicka, 16, said they are looking forward to unpacking the robot when they get to St. Charles, checking it out and getting back in the game.
This time, Glicka said, they'll come back with the gold.
What does it take to build a robot? Here are some ingredients from a 170-item list provided by the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology robotics competition.
Single row radial flanged ball bearings
Snap-action circuit breakers
A quick-disconnect power connector
Radio control system
Velcro grip ties
Drill housing screws
Helical plastic wire wrap
Assorted motors, pulleys and springs
Heat shrink tubing
Insulated electrical connectors
Sprockets, gears and pulleys
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