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Robot crew to build support

By EMILY NIPPS
Published April 6, 2007


It's as exciting as watching your high school team compete in a state football championship game, perhaps even more so.

At least that's what scientific minds claim.

"It's like watching the Green Bay Packers play in rival Chicago," Middleton physics teacher Bill Vasden said. "This is pretty cool."

It's the 2007 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition, or basically a duel between robots.

And, yeah, it's pretty cool if you're into things like interfaces and motherboards and transmission mounts.

Earlier this month, a team of Middleton students and a few Hillsborough High students built a robot that won the FIRST regional competition in Duluth, Ga. The Minotaur Team 1369 robot, as it's called, basically beat the heck out of other robots at Rack N' Roll, a game involving inner tubes specifically created for this year's competition.

The next stop for Minotaur is Atlanta for the national competition April 12. Many of the nearly 40 team members who built the robot hope to go and cheer it on, if only they can gain the interest and money they need.

That has proved to be as much of a challenge as building the actual robot. The team, made up of mostly science and technology enthusiasts, has tried to spread the excitement through pep rally announcements and videos on the closed-circuit morning show at Middleton. But excellence in robotics doesn't seem to have the same flair as, say, a victory for Middleton's sports teams.

"People at Middleton are not as aware as we'd like them to be," said Jasmine Browne, a senior on the Minotaur team. "We're trying to get our name out there."

If only more students knew about this kind of stuff, Vasden said, they would be hooked.

For years, students have made robots that compete against each other at regional contests. Team members receive a kit of parts and a description of a game at the beginning of each "season." They then have six weeks to build and program the robot to play the game. At regional contests, they gather with other teenage robotmakers and their robots.

"The atmosphere is amazing," Browne said. "There's so much team pride. You'll see some teams where all of the members are wearing pink shirts and wigs. They just go crazy."

But high school science programs like this one garner less attention than other extracurricular activities - less funding, too. The Minotaur Team, which is open to any student in the area who is interested, has been scrambling to find more than $12,000 to cover the entry fee and travel to Atlanta next week.

The teens have gained help from sponsors. They have faith that the rest of the funding will come through, if they persevere. They believe in overcoming challenges - just like their mascot.

"A minotaur is a symbol of strength and courageousness," Browne said. "And fighting through things."

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com.