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Building a better 'bot: Brainy teens gear up for competition

SUWANEE - In a physics classroom at Peachtree Ridge High School, students who see the fun in mathematics, science and technology gather after school once a week to build erector-set-style robots.

They write equations on the classroom's marker board, they talk to each other about programming code, and they test their designs to see if the robots run and perform as planned.

The Robotics Club, which has about 45 active members, is getting ready for an in-house competition, in which the robots they are designing will play Ping-Pong soccer, said Valerie Strain, a parent mentor for the club.

"(The students) can have fun with science and technology and math and engineering," Strain said. "It can be as attractive as entertainment and athletics."

Strain's son, Robotics Club President Michael Strain, said he pushed for the in-house competition last year, when he was the club's vice president, after he noticed a large number of students who came to the first meeting stopped coming to the club.

The in-house competition gives students an idea of what it will be like early next year, when they have six weeks to prepare for the Peachtree Regional Competition, a robotics competition that is at the Gwinnett Civic and Cultural Center in Duluth, said Michael Strain, a senior.

Last year, six Gwinnett high schools entered the competition, and Peachtree Ridge won, Valerie Strain said. Winners from the regional competition enter the state competition, hoping for a chance to proceed to the worldwide competition.

Carlos Towns, a junior, said he joined the club this year and kept coming back because he wanted to finish the robot he's been building.

"I have better ideas each week," Towns said.

He said the club has taught him to "be open minded to every idea and to not just think in one way."

Towns said he's looking forward to the regional competition, which other team members described as "nothing you've ever seen before."

"It's exactly like a sporting event, but it's more festive and everyone is more into it," said Keefer Dunn, a junior.

Many of the club members are also preparing to help host a Lego League competition Saturday at Peachtree Ridge, in which children ages 9 to 14 will compete with the robots they have built.

The competition is open to the public, and there is no cost to get in. Events are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

"I wish I had that when I was a kid," Archit Bhise, a sophomore, said of the Lego League competition. Bhise said he wants to pursue a career in artificial intelligence.

Bhise said he's looking forward to the Peachtree Regional because competitors can receive scholarships. He became a member of the Robotics Club this year, after watching what club members did last year.

"People portray robotics as not the coolest, but it's fun," he said.

For more information about the Peachtree Regional, visit www.peachtreeregional.org.