Who can build the best robot? Palm Beach County students battle it out

A competition in West Palm Beach offers high school students a unique opportunity: Build a functional robot in six weeks.

Royal Palm Beach High School’s Amped Up team is in its second year taking part in the tournament and has high hopes with a vision that its mechanical person will scoop up blocks and successfully hoist itself up.

Their creation — outfitted with flywheels, gears, mechanical arms and a healthy dose of stainless steel and polycarbonate — is one of 54 robots from nine countries competing this weekend at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in the South Florida regional arm of the FIRST Robotics competition, an international tournament that culminates next month in Houston and Detroit.

Each year, the challenge changes, and teams this year have to create robots that can move blocks around an arena. Bonus points if your robot can use an arm or arms to raise itself off the ground. Think of it as the ultimate pull-up.

Royal Palm Beach team president Ethan Caballero, an 18-year-old senior who plans to study aerospace engineering at the University of Florida, said the hands-on experience is a huge benefit.

“I for one wasn’t sure if I even wanted to enter engineering as a field,” he said. “It’s really cemented that decision.”

The students work as a team across a variety of disciplines, from programming to electrical wiring to graphic design and photography. Last year served as a learning experience for the team, which placed 44th out of 49 teams.

“It was completely new,” Caballero said of last year’s tournament. “We feel a lot more confident coming into this year. Our robot is more complex.”

Teams have anywhere from a dozen to 50 or more students. In each round, two groups of three teams face off to see which can get the most points. When not competing, the teams work on their robots at workstations in an area known as “The Pit.”

The Mega Awesome Robotic System team (MARS) from northern Palm Beach County has about 50 students from Dwyer High School, Jupiter High School, Palm Beach Gardens High School, Baldwin Prep School and Oxbridge Academy, along with several home-school students.

Dwyer High teacher Mike Sagen is one of the advisers for MARS, and said the FIRST program prepares students for success after high school — whether or not they seek a job in technology.

“Colleges really look for FIRST kids,” he said, noting they demonstrate teamwork, the ability to meet deadlines and work under pressure, and skill in reading technical documentation. “They know that the kids have a good academic background.”

And for those participating in FIRST, that academic background can pay off. Last year, the FIRST organization handed out $50 million in scholarships.

Jupiter High School junior Nicholas Gibelli, 16, has been involved in FIRST since middle school and now works for MARS. During Thursday’s practice round, his team was busy tweaking its robot from a recent competition in Orlando.

“Working on robots like these help students get prepared for working in so many fields,” Gibelli said, adding that the range of skills needed on a team include business acumen and leadership ability.

He also sees other benefits from FIRST. “I’ve met so many of my friends here,” he said.

Royal Palm Beach High School engineering teacher Robert Krasnicki said the competition is a great example of project-based learning. “This teaches them so many things you can’t learn in a textbook,” he said.

Amped Up and MARS are two of 21 teams at the competition sponsored by Florida Power & Light Co., said Maureen Wilt, the company’s senior education program manager. “We need a qualified workforce,” she said.

About six years ago, she saw the opportunity to get involved with FIRST. When she attended her first tournament, she realized the talent surrounding her. “These young people are more than qualified to work for us or anyone else,” Wilt said.

Over the past two years, FPL has donated $15,000 to Amped Up alone, Krasnicki said. “FPL has made this all possible,” he added. “They provide a lot of opportunities to our students after graduation, too.”

For Royal Palm Beach biology teacher and Amped Up adviser Winsome Haye, two years of work already shows in her students.

“From the beginning to this point, they have made such great strides,” she said. “They are amazing. These kids are so dedicated.”

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