CHS robot going to Kansas City

       It's body is scarcely 2 feet tall, and it can kick soccer balls, roll over bumps and (hopefully) hang from a bar 7 feet high.

Senior Kyle Hensley, CEO of this year's Coronado High School robotics team, demonstrates the just-completed unit to friends and families during a gathering Feb. 23 in the cafeteria. The extended arm has a wire running through it so the robot can toss a hook over a bar as part of this year's specifications for regional and national competition. At far left, CHS teacher/Robotics advisor Gary Hilty is joined by granddaughters Hannah, 11; and Alexa, 7. In all, 53 CHS students are participating in the extracurricular effort.
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       It's the Coronado High School entry in this year's FIRST Robotics competition.
       The team's robot took first place in FIRST's 2009 Denver Regional competition, but that version was built to place different sizes and shapes of balls into trailers towed by opponent robots in a simulation of microgravity.
       This year the rules were changed (as expected), so the students had to start over, redesigning their unit for FIRST's new “soccer” game called Breakaway. They've been hard at it for the past six weeks, with about 50 students putting in about 200 hours of extracurricular time each, according to Gary Hilty, a Coronado engineering teacher who is a staff advisor for the project. Another advisor is fellow engineering teacher Bryce McLean, who spearheaded CHS' robotics beginning last year.
       This week the students finished the last major work on their electronic marvel prior to the Kansas City Regionals March 4-6. (Under FIRST rules, the robot had to be put in a sealed bag Feb. 23, which cannot be reopened until a “scrimmage” period at the Kansas City event, and even then only minor modifications can be made, Hilty explained.) On March 25-27, Coronado will seek to defend its title at the 2010 Denver Regionals.
       The Coronado team has the official FIRST title of “2996,” but has given itself the nickname of “Cougars Gone Wired.” Hilty was careful to note that he and other teachers, private mentors and parents only play advisory roles to the team. Unlike some of the schools they've competed against, Coronado adults “never touch the robot,” Hilty said. “It's totally a student dominated project.”
       FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization founded 19 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen. “FIRST is about giving kids the opportunity to build skill sets like analytical thinking to then develop what they may or may not use to build a robot; but they might use these skills to become a scientist, engineer, or inventor,” Kamen states on the FIRST website. “Ten years from today, one of these students is going to be out in the world having done something extraordinary for a major, global problem.”

The electronic intricacies of the Cougars Gone Wired robot can be seen in this photo taken shortly before it was completed. The students provide detailed information about the unit's components on their website, team2996.com. Clicking on the "Robot" link, then the "Control" link displays a screen that lets you click on the robot's different devices to find out what each one does.
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       This year's Coronado team actually started meeting in October, planning duties (students got to ask for three jobs they wanted to do), planning fundraising (no small matter when the overall cost is about $40,000) and organizing its leadership. For the latter category, the team has a flow chart that would do a corporation proud. As the overall lead, senior Kyle Hensley even has the title of “CEO.” He oversees two main teams - Business and Technical - each of which has sub-teams with their own “vice presidents.”
       There's plenty for everyone to do, Hilty said. On the Technical side, there are teams for Programming, Manipulator, Animation, Mobility and Electrical. On the business side are Community/Media, Awards, Finance, Web & Communication and Scout.
       The long hours started as soon as FIRST announced this year's game and what the robots ought to be able to do. Technical issues included figuring out how to position soccer balls in front of the machine's kicker device (the team invented automated mechanical rollers for that purpose) and the functionality (not quite perfected) of having 2996 toss a hook from the end of its extendable arm over a 7-foot-high bar to allow itself to be lifted up, Hilty said.
       “For the team and myself, this is one of the best real-world experiences you can get for engineering,” said Hensley, a senior who plans to major in mechanical engineering at either CSU or the University of Nebraska. “It's real intense, with lots of hours after school, but it's lots of fun.”
       A feature that he especially likes is the FIRST-taught “gracious professionalism” that prevails even at regional competitions. “That's basically the best part of it,” Hensley said. “In other sports, you don't have that sportsmanship where people from other schools help each other. We trade parts, help fix each other's robots and give strategy tips.”
       This trait is also nurtured in the competitions themselves, in which schools' teams can ally themselves at different times with other teams, with the idea of combining strengths to achieve greater success for both.
       Nevertheless, both Hensley and Hilty wouldn't mind at least some carryover from the team's Regionals victory last year. Going up against 60 to 80 teams at both Kansas City and Denver, Coronado team members are hopeful for a finish at least in the top eight. If they are able to do that well, that could encourage them to spend the money to go to the National competition in Atlanta, Ga., April 15-17, Hensley said. (Coronado is already pre-qualified as a result of winning the Denver Regionals last year, he noted.)
       The team is competing in two regional events this year to maximize the capabilities of the team and the robot. The thinking is that with “the complexity of the robot,” it might take two competitions for its functionality to work right and for students to learn how to maneuver it well, Hilty said.

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