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‘Marinerds’ rock the robots at competition

By Staff | Dec 16, 2015

They arrived at the Mariner High School gym with team nicknames such as the Neutrinos, Surge, Shockwave and Twisted Circuitz.

They weren’t there for a basketball tournament. On Saturday, these high school students took part in a robotics competition where teams from Clearwater to Naples faced off (and teamed up) to see who was the best.

The teams that took part are part of what is known as the Pinellas League of Robotics, where the teams try to accumulate points by performing specific tasks in a short period of time.

The competitors could be your opponent in one match, and your partner in the next. Even schools that brought more than one team compete against each other.

Jim Holder, a hardware engineer with Raytheon in Largo who also serves as event director, said it is a STEM activity (science, technology, engineering, and math).

“It engages the high school kids to get them excited about science and technology. We’re grooming engineers here,” Holder said.

The games are designed by the global organization FIRST, an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, who then send the games to the leagues so they can run the show, Holden said.

Each match is two and a half minutes long, with two robots per alliance, red and blue. There is a lot of debris on the field (blocks and wiffle balls) that the robots can score with by picking them up and placing them in a goal. They can also release climbers from the mountain and score.

They can score more points by “climbing the mountain.” They have to get over the obstacles and reach the cliff, which can only be done in the last 30 seconds of the match.

The first 30 seconds is autonomous, where the software runs the robot and tells it what to do. The rest of the time the teams control their robots.

“There’s more to it than playing this game. They’re doing build schedules, software, fundraising, community outreach, and older teams will mentor younger teams,” Holder said.

Mariner’s squad, the Marinerds, consisted of Espen Taylor, Daniel Johnson and Brady Driscoll. Taylor, who got to drive the robot, said he moved here over the summer from New York and everyone has been nice to him.

“I’m happy to be given the chance to drive the thing. It’s a lot of fun. It can be stressful, especially with the communication, but overall it’s an exciting experience,” Taylor said.

William James, engineering teacher at Mariner who serves as coach, said the team went to Tampa in September to learn the specs and rules in building the robots.

From there, the students came up with a design, built it, tested it, and went back to the drawing board if it didn’t work, James said.

James said his role is more as a facilitator whom the students can come to for advice and who rarely, if ever, touches the robot.

“This robot is probably their third try. The kids do it all. I sit in the other room and if they have a question, they ask me,” James said. “If they need help building something and don’t know how, I will step in and show them how to use a tool.”

Mariner’s robot featured a tape measure that was used to hook onto the top of the mountain in an effort to climb it. Unfortunately, the robot was pulled sideways and they ran out of time.

Everyone was having fun. Music blared and the kids did the cha-cha slide between and sometimes during matches.

James said they are in the high-rent district with college most likely in their future. So games like this can only help them

“These kids are all going to college. They already have a four-year college ride. They want to become engineers. They really like this stuff,” James said. “What I teach these kids, they use in the world.”