MARQUETTE - Growing up, Dan Howard watched television shows like "Battle Bots," a program that pitted armored and weaponized robots against each other on the field of battle. He was unusually interested in all types of robots, including those that assembled cars.
So when the opportunity to construct and control his own robot presented itself, the Marquette Senior High School freshman seized it.
"The whole robotics concept, for me, was new," he said. "I've never really been a robotics kind of guy, as far as the mechanical or electrical stuff."
The Marquette Senior High School robotics team, Cold Logic, received recognition from the Marquette Area Public Schools board on Monday night. From left, Dan Howard, mentor Cory Walters, James Gladwell, Peter Aartila, Andrew Jennings, Nicole Schlorkey, Justin Hanna and coach John King. (Journal photo by Kyle Whitney)
But Howard was part of a group of MSHS students that walked away as champions of the Livonia FIRST Robotics competition at the beginning of April. In its inaugural year, the team, Cold Logic, spent six weeks building a robot from scratch, writing code and learning how to remotely maneuver the metal beast.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national initiative started in 1992 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. The mission of the program, according to the FIRST website, is to "inspire young people to be science and technology leaders." This is done through mentoring-based activities and competitions - all of which revolve around robotics.
This season, 51,875 high school students on 2,075 teams across the country participated in events that were part of the premiere FIRST Robotics Competition. Each team, like the MAPS team, received a common kit of parts and had six weeks to construct a robot, which could weigh no more than 120 pounds - excluding a battery and bumpers.
John King, the industrial arts and automotive teacher at MSHS, knows a fair share about technology, but he was lost when he first looked upon the basic kit of parts provided by FIRST.
"I still remember that first moment looking at all the parts," said King, who served as the coach for the MSHS team. "A lot of it was foreign."
In each round of competition, three teams form an alliance and square off against another trio of robots. The goal is for the remote-controlled robots to travel across the field, collect inner tubes, return to the staring position and hang the tubes on pegs.
Team members must do this while trying to prevent opposing robots from achieving the same goal. At the end of the time limit, the team with the most tubes collected wins.
MSHS senior Nicole Schlorkey was responsible for programming the MSHS robot.
"My job was making the robot respond to what the controllers wanted it to do," she said.
Schlorkey, who will be attending Michigan Tech University for computer science next year, said the opportunity provided her with valuable experience and gave her a jumpstart on her future.
"For me, as a programmer, I got real-world experience," she said. "The only situations I've done programming before is in the classroom."
Although Cold Logic won the Livonia competition, the team didn't acquire enough points this season to advance to the state finals. Still, King valued the competition because it allowed students to do something fun while applying what they've learned. The added wrinkle of deadlines and budget constraints made the whole process more nerve-wracking.
"This has been an opportunity for students to step away from the classroom and it's not based so much on theory," he said. "These are actual problems they have to confront and it's an awesome way to get some experience that will really set them apart."
King said he was very proud of his first-year team, especially after the performance in Livonia. He said that since so much of downstate Michigan is built on the back of the engineering and manufacturing industries, it is especially gratifying to head north across the Mackinac Bridge with a first-place banner.
"I don't think they really had an understanding of the seriousness of this competition, especially downstate," King said. "Overall, it was just a great experience with the students."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is email@example.com.