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12/26/06 Robot rumble Oakmont, Granite Bay high schools compete
Oakmont, Granite Bay high schools compete in 'high-tech soccer'

Oakmont and Granite Bay high school students swarmed around a makeshift ring in an industrial arts class last Thursday, cheering on contestants in hard-fought skirmishes as spirited as anything on pay-per-view.

But there's no chance of anyone being knocked out here - unless you count Scarab, a five-wheeled robot whose metal arm required some re-tooling after going up against a rival.

"It's so stressful," said Robert Dean, a Granite Bay freshman in Steven Miller's robotics class and part of the team responsible for turning a heap of mechanical and electrical parts into the slightly nicked-up radio-controlled robot warrior. "Our robot fell apart, and we spent three weeks building it."

Dean was one of about 60 students from robotics classes at both schools who competed in the first-ever event, which saw contestants attempt to best each other in a kind of high-tech soccer.

The two-hour contest, held at Oakmont, was a miniature version of regional and statewide matches held around the country.

The Oakmont event, however, is more for fun than for bragging rights, said Oakmont robotics teacher Steve Dicus. And it's not designed to be a cross-town grudge match, either.

Heats were composed of two sets of paired teams - one each from Granite Bay and Oakmont - in an effort to share strategies, build relationships and promote cooperation, Dicus said.

"It takes two teams per side, which forces our kids to collectively work together," Dicus said.

The game's goal was to guide remote-control robots in pushing as many softballs as possible into each team's designated side within two minutes.

Dunking balls into vertical tubes, pushing a large yellow exercise ball off a platform, and, in the mother of all showoff moves, hanging a robot from an overhead bar are all worth extra points.

After learning the game's objectives several weeks ago, students went to work designing and building robots - or bots, as they call them - using Vex components, a more affordable and customizable offshoot of the well established FIRST Robotics Competition kit.

The kits can include hundreds of parts, including micro controllers, transmitters, wheels and a host of gears and chassis components.

Bot designs are limited only by students' imaginations - although a few strategies prove most popular.

Many builders focus on front-firing mechanisms to push balls forward; others on grabbers to carry balls to their destination.

Still others put much effort into constructing arms that can deposit balls down vertical tubes, or that can hang from the overhead bar.

"You think of a good idea, and it doesn't work, so you have to go back," explained Granite Bay junior Marty Beil.

And that, teachers said, is the whole point.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, started the FIRST Robotics Competition in an effort to interest high school aged kids in science and technology 15 years ago. Last year, FIRST launched the Vex program, in which students build smaller, lighter and more affordable machines.

In all, thousands of high school students have taken part in bot-building and associated Vex and FIRST competitions, as well as countless more informal matches. Carol Pepper-Kittredge, director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at Sierra College, said robotics classes, clubs and contests are a way to interest students in technological careers, such as mechatronics, a type of mechanical engineering.

"It helps show kids there are exciting careers in this type of field that utilizes all the things they're doing here," she said. "And the starting average salary is $50,000 a year."

Oakmont junior Johnny Bianco joined his school's robotics class as soon as he learned he could build creations much like the popular "Battle Bots"-style machines seen on TV.

"Whoever has the best ideas wins," he said. "You've just got to make sure your bot can stand up to being hit by another robot at least once."

After taking the class, Bianco said he's considering pursuing a job in a related field.

"It's just more interesting," he said. A career in this "is more fun than sitting at a desk."

On Thursday, "drivers" - bot operators skilled at manipulating the machines' remote controls - maneuvered their teams' creations around the ring under the watchful eye of a student referee. All the while, a rowdy crowd of teammates and spectators jockeyed for the best view.

"So much of this is just like a sporting event," Miller, the Granite Bay teacher, said.

Beil, the Granite Bay junior, agreed. "I was into computers already," he said. "These beat computers, because these can fight."

- Nathan Donato-Weinstein can be reached at

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