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On-Track Academy enters its first state robotics competition

Thu., March 3, 2011

When 19-year-old Jessica Joy learned her alternative school was putting a robotics team together for a statewide competition, she checked into it.

She’s “artsy,” she said, and learns best when the project is hands-on.

“When I learned I could do design, not just work on the robot, I said, ‘I am so in,’ ” the teen said Wednesday.

Joy is one of 14 students at Spokane Public Schools’ On-Track Academy, a credit-retrieval school, who joined the school’s newly formed robotics team. Since January, they’ve been preparing for Washington’s FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology regional competition in Seattle. They will join 83 other teams – 25 from Eastern Washington – March 18-19.

The 12 winning Washington teams will move on to the World Championships in St. Louis April 27-30, said Ben Jolley, a spokesman for US FIRST Robotics. The nationwide competition is in its 20th year. Washington has the largest regional competition.

But for On-Track, it’s a new game. Not only is the competition a first for the students, but the teachers are rookies, too.

“But we’ve had lots of support,” said Nate Ziegler, one of two On-Track teachers overseeing the team. The competition encourages support among the teams. St. George’s School, a private school that’s participated for seven years, has offered guidance and tips on finding resources. “That’s been really helpful.”

The goal for the 2011 competition, themed “Logomotion,” is to build a robot that motors across a 27-by-54-foot field and places an inflated triangle, circle and square, in that order, onto pegs to create FIRST’s logo.

To prepare, the On-Track students spent the first six weeks designing the robot. After the main portion of the robot is built, it has to be put away until the competition, according to contest rules.

The robot hasn’t been named, but on Wednesday 19-year-old Kevin Chitwood called it “the Terminator’s dopey cousin.”

Chitwood is excited to see how other teams built their robots, how fast they put them together and their design.

But the robot is just one part of the competition. The 14-member team divided the work according to the members’ strengths, Ziegler said. There’s a business aspect, such as the travel budget; marketing, such as creating jerseys; programming to operate the robot; and electronics.

Joy created the logo for the team, dubbed The Purple People Eaters. It’s a mechanical-looking dragon “spitting fire,” she said.

Another student, Scott Harris, said the whole project has been a lot of “trial and error.” But, he added, “I think this is as good as we can do. And we’ve learned how we can do better next time.”

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