Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Catching Up With Our Heritage High Robotics Team

Five years ago, the Heritage High School robotics team in Brentwood, CA, went into the FIRST Tech Challenge with robots literally held together in some places by rubber bands. Their coach and robotics teacher Robert Pardi barely had enough money to sign up for the FTC, a national small robot contest. In fact, the only reason he could even start that year is because a parent of one of his students worked at Bishop-Wisecarver and offered to put him in touch with the company in hopes of a sponsorship.

"You guys helped get us going," Pardi told us this week when we stopped by his class for a visit. "With that money, we were able to buy a basic kit ... and yeah, it really took off from there."

Did it ever!

This year, his students created a sophisticated 25-pound remote controlled robot made up of 1,200-plus parts. Some of the students who have been there since the beginning are now high school seniors with years of experience in design, club politics, strategy, marketing and community involvement, plus all those little things one can only learn from logging in hours on a project.

"We've definitely made a lot of progress since I first started," said 17-year-old Michael Kintscher, one of the robotic club's lead designers and a member since his freshman year. "There's a lot you can't know until you've done this, until you've tested things in the field."

A BIG WIN Affirmation of that progress came in the form of a big win last weekend (which we blogged about on Tuesday). We took that as our cue to swing by after class to catch up with Pardi and his students. The Patriots, as the team's called, took home an Inspiration Award — the top prize at the regional FTC contest on Sunday.

The victory was unexpected, Pardi told us, and it's proof that his students are on the right track. Now the kids are all fired up, more than ever, for the next phase of the competition: Another regional showdown in March.

Kintscher told us he's using what he learned in the heat of battle to come up with a solid strategy for the team's next bout. But he feels confident that his team has an added advantage already since most of the team has years of experience and they use CAD software to design their robot.

"Every year the game is different, but there's a lot you can carry over that helps," he said, adding that what really caught the judges' eyes on Sunday was a digital animation of their design displayed on a monitor for all to see.

"No other team was doing that," he told us. "It definitely made us stand out."

KEEPING MOMENTUM Now that the team has been around for a few years, Pardi told us, they've earned a stellar reputation on campus. With about 20 members this year, word's getting out that there's something cool going on in the engineering lab. Friends of friends who were too late in signing up this school year are helping out on their own time without credit and plan to enlist next fall. One of those volunteers was at the lab on Tuesday when we popped in.

"The biggest appeal initially is the wow factor," said Kintscher. He believes that students are initially drawn in by the fun of making a robot but what keeps students is all that FIRST has to offer through it's competitions, celebrity involvements and scholastic opportunities. "If you keep it interesting, you get more people coming in wanting to find out how they can get involved."

That initial spark of interest often evolves into something longer-lasting, Pardi said, as soon as parents and the students themselves find out how much they glean from being part of an academic team. He looks to his current students as proof.

"They've improved so much in attitude, intensity, the way that they work with one another," he said. "They're able now to encourage each other and work out their disagreements. There's been tremendous progress, even in their personal life. Some of them have really come out of their shells."