It’s just after 3pm on a recent day and Rohnert Park’s Technology High, located on the Sonoma State campus, has emptied out for the day.
But in one classroom, the school’s robotics team is busy designing, soldering and building prototypes for a robot that will walk, roll and even shoot a Frisbee.
The students hunched over the project are part of FIRST, a national organization that aims to nurture a love of engineering and technology and churn out the next generation of innovators.
They’re also racing the clock, with just six weeks to build a 120-pound, 5-foot robot that will be able to hold its own at a regional competition.
“The appeal is the creative energy you get to expend,” says 17-year-old TJ Dooley, captain of Tech High’s Team #675, who is eyeing MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Harvey Mudd as college options. “It’s not just about figuring out how we will build it, but also how we can do it differently from other teams.”
Tech High is one of more than 2,000 groups around the country building a robot this year, with the best teams squaring off at the championships in St. Louis, Missouri in April. The Rohnert Park group, made up of some 60 students, is student-run, with teens divided into groups such as Computer Assisted Design, Manufacturing and Safety who all contribute something to the final project.
“Whatever you learned in science and engineering classes, you can build on it here,” says Mary Nguyen, 14, a freshman interested in pursuing a career as a bio-engineer. “We’re nerds and proud of it. Other kids play sports, we build a robot.”
Overseeing the controlled chaos is teacher Greg Weaver, who has been running the club since 2000.
“This is a business,” Weaver says. “We have a budget, a business plan, we fundraise by selling Scrip and getting corporate sponsors and grants. Building a robot can cost upwards of $23,000 a year.”
The corporate sponsors are many and include such local companies as 2 Dye 4 Inc., which does electroplating and polishing, Advanced Sheet Metal, Expressway Self Storage, Innovative Screen Printing and Auto Body and More.
In the laboratory, Aaron Clark and Jeremy Mugurussa, both 16, are busy riveting a wheel for the robot, made from folded sheet aluminum and run by a compact real-time embedded industrial controller, “the brains” of the operation. Soon they move on to the sliding mechanism that will spin the Frisbee before discharging it.
The goal is to create a really accurate shooting mechanism that will allow the robot, yet unnamed, to shoot Frisbees from far away.
The boys try out the prototype, then bring Mr. Weaver in to show off their progress.
“Good start,” he says as the Frisbee hits a wall.
It’s only week two for the robotics team, but they appear well on their way.