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'Not only about robots'
North Gwinnett students design, create machine

SUWANEE - Dorian Henao and Catherine Wong sat on the classroom floor, attempting to attach the final wheel to the wooden base of a robot.

After struggling with a screw for about 15 minutes, the wheel was finally in place.

"Thank you, Jesus," Henao said with relief. "It is about time."

Then the North Gwinnett High School seniors noticed a problem: The chain wasn't properly affixed, so the troublesome wheel had to come off.

"It's a lot of trial and error," Henao said of learning how to properly affix the objects.

While there was time for a learning curve, the students were also working on a deadline. A team of North Gwinnett students had six weeks to build a robot to compete in March in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Peachtree Regional Competition at the Gwinnett Center. Robots must be shipped Tuesday.

Nearly 50 teams from nine states have registered for the regional competition, scheduled from March 12 to 14. Gwinnett high schools participating in the competition include North Gwinnett, Peachtree Ridge and Duluth, according to the competition's Web site.

This year's game is "Lunacy," in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Robots will throw balls, called moon rocks, into opposing teams' trailers as they move about on a slick playing field, or crater. Maneuvering the robot on the playing field will be similar to driving a car on ice.

"It's really a hands-on appreciation of math and science," North Gwinnett senior Nick Cesar said of the competition. "There's a lot of physics this year with the low-friction surface."

When the competition was announced Jan. 3, about 30 students gathered in teacher and team coach Mike Reilly's classroom, waiting to watch an online video of this year's game. The team couldn't watch the live streaming video in the classroom, so, eager to discover the details, they marched outside with laptops hoping to pick up a connection on an unsecured wireless network.

After the group spent several minutes walking along Level Creek Road in front of the school, they gave up and went inside to wait - well aware that the six-week deadline had started. When a group of students arrived with the kit of parts, the excitement was tangible.

"There's been a lot of enthusiasm," Cesar said, nearly five weeks after the game was announced. "There's a lot of hard work going on."

With few exceptions, team members have gathered in Reilly's classroom after school and on weekends to build the robot. There was a lull in action while the team waited for some parts to be manufactured.

Senior Michael Spencer, the team's main programmer, is using C++, a computer programming language, to configure the robot, which is equipped with a Web camera.

"I'm setting up the vision so we can track targets and specify bots and balls," he said. "I'm working with the system and trying to get it to work correctly."

Teacher Terry Hackett, the team's assistant coach, said the competition is giving a diverse group of students the ability to build and problem solve. Although their skill levels differ, the students all share a passion for engineering, design and development.

"The team is led by teachers, engineers and parents, but most of the work is done by students," he said.

Charles Guan, a 20-year-old MIT student, started North's first robotics team in 2006.

"I wanted to make people see the value of an engineering education," he said. "It was absolutely crazy. When it first started, we almost didn't make it in (the competition) because we didn't have enough for the entry fee and we had no sponsors."

In just a few years, the team has transformed into a group that has, with Reilly's help, secured several sponsors, including Global Agenda Games and Meggitt. Last year, the school's robotics team won a national award for creativity.

Since the team's inception, the number and diversity of students has grown.

"The word is spreading," Guan said. "People are bringing friends in. This program is not only about robots. It's anything about engineering. ... It's about business, graphic design. It involves everybody."

Wong decided to join the team this year on Henao's suggestion.

"Aren't you glad I took away like 20 hours of your life?" Henao asked her.

"It's not 20 hours of my life," Wong replied. "It's like 20 days of my life."

"You should be thankful," Henao said.

"I am," Wong replied cheerfully, later adding. "I love it. I love building stuff and creating things."

Henao said she's considering becoming an engineer.

"I'm really grateful for this opportunity," she said. "I don't think there's anywhere else in school that will teach you to put a wheel on a robot."