Staff Photo: John Bohn The award-winning championship robotics team at Peachtree Ridge is packing for a trip to compete in the world robotics competition this week.
SUWANEE -- After the school buses had groaned away and the hallways cleared, a tech-savvy team of Peachtree Ridge High School students busily packed a trailer Tuesday with laptops, Xbox components and a big, beefy robot, their prized cargo. To be at school later than most teachers was nothing new.
Come morning, the trailer, like 26 students on two flights, would be St. Louis-bound, off to a gathering of 400 robotics teams hailing from Israel to South America, in addition to the traditional powerhouse teams from Canada. The destination was the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championships at the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams. In the crowd of thousands would be NASA personnel, military officials, even a crew from "MythBusters." The Peachtree Ridge team, the Robo Lions, would be the lone representatives from Gwinnett's public schools and one of five Georgia teams.
In a show of commitment, the team would be forgoing the school's junior-senior prom in order to compete.
"It's worth it," said senior Samir Jain, 18, a lead programmer.
In Buddy Holly glasses and Nike sneakers, Jain imparts code that serves as directions for the Robo Lions' machine -- duties that send him racing into the stands for optimum views, or fretting details in "the pit." That he's deaf, and must communicate at all times with a sign-language interpreter, is hardly an impediment for Jain, who, come fall, will be a biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech.
His is one success story among the intellectual family of 50 that call themselves Robo Lions -- kids with the uncanny ability to make a hunk of aluminum not only come alive, but to squash adversaries. These are brainiacs with a purpose.
"There's a huge amount of stress in it," Jain said, "but it's extremely rewarding to see what I've created in the brain of a robot."Fruits of laborAt the helm is robotics team sponsor Mary "Momma" Rutland, a chemistry teacher so nicknamed for her doting compassion.
Rutland said team members hail from all backgrounds (this isn't exclusively the territory of Mathletes) and grade levels. Membership generally skews toward the guys, though girls' participation has swelled since the team's founding in 2003. Robo Lions alumni "fill Georgia Tech" and land at esteemed places like MIT, Rutland said.
The prerequisites for joining are merely interest and the aptitude for hard work.
"My students, for the most part, are very high-performing, but we don't select based on that," she said. "We've definitely become a family because of the amount of time we're together, and as much as we try to help each other."
In less than three weeks, the Robo Lions had raised the $15,000 required for the St. Louis sojourn via car washes, sweepstakes ticket sales and community sponsorships.
Jain downplays robotics competitions as "basketball for nerds," but he knows the enhancements in team building and leadership skills -- in addition to training in fields from basic wiring to computer-aided design -- make the experience a portal to greater things, like careers in electrical and mechanical engineering. A former team president recently landed a job with National Instruments in Texas.
"It ventures out into a whole bunch of majors," he said.
The competition robot is more buffalo than swan, a 120-pound bruiser dubbed "Mar Madness," in honor of integral student builder Ryan Mar. Mean but precise, it's about the size of two student desks, with pneumatic wheels, sensors, onboard cameras and an elevator to hoist objects like balls. Unlike many, the robot was built by the students from scratch, save two plates on the chassis that had to be outsourced.
The team was allotted six weeks to build "Mar Madness," and members poured about 20 extracurricular hours per week into the project, including a handful of Saturdays and Sundays.
The team differentiates itself from others by being purely extracurricular (versus schools with robotics curriculum) and wholly orchestrated by students, from the coaches to "scouts," which hawk the competition to build alliances. One such diplomat, junior Andrew Shaw, 17, said his interest in robotics was foreshadowed by a predilection for Legos.
"I would say, yeah, I was a very math-and-science-based child," Shaw said.Spirited competitionThe team qualified for the world contest after winning the Peachtree Regionals by "a sizable margin," as Rutland puts it, at the Gwinnett Center in March.
The so-called "Rebound Rumble" pit Mar Madness against other robots in a test of dexterity and swiftness, involving Nerf basketballs, four widespread hoops and a raucous crowd. Extra points were racked by robots who could navigate bridges and obstacle pipes.
"It's as crazy as any football game you'd go to," Rutland said.
The robot's lone driver, Georgia Tech-bound senior Vikram Chhabria, 18, uses an Xbox 360 controller to steer, and general calmness to excel. "I remember in the beginning, I used to freak out," said the future industrial engineering major.
Team coach Katherine Li, a 16-year-old junior, credits the program with bringing her out of her shell after she transferred from another school district.
"When I started (at the school), I just put my head down in class," said Li, now considered by teammates a vivacious leader.
In addition to the regionals crown, the team has earned recent awards on merits of creativity, engineering and the big-deal Motorola Quality Award, bestowed by the team's chief sponsor, which paid for the robot build.
In the opinion of team president and Jain's programming counterpart, senior Sehyun Han, 18, the team's potential is boundless, so long as they stay aggressive. As members were keenly aware, recruiters from big engineering companies would be scouting the world's competition.
"I don't think there will ever be a sense of conclusion," Han said, "because we're always trying to better ourselves."