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Building the bot

Engineers team with local high school students to compete in an annual robotics competition, and show that science and technology can be fun.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2000

CLEARWATER -- It's Krunch time for the Navigators.

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Laurie Sundholm (left) and Lori Ciszak, students at East Lake High School, assemble Captain Krunch II at the Clearwater facility of Honeywell Inc.
That's Captain Krunch II, a 5-foot, 130-pound robot designed and built in six weeks by the Navigators, a team of 65 high school students and about 35 volunteers from the Clearwater facility of Honeywell Inc. It will compete against hundreds of others from across the country in an annual robotics competition.

"I think we can win it," said Honeywell engineer Skip Webb, also known as Mr. Robot and director of the effort. "This robot can do it all."

In this case, doing it all means rolling around, picking up balls, placing them in a raised rack, raising itself off the ground on the rack and fending off other robots trying to do the same. Seven motors power various functions (up from four motors in last year's model that finished fifth nationally).

The team rolled out the robot last week to meet a deadline set by the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition (

The Navigators are gearing up for a regional competition in March at Kennedy Space Center. The national competition, with 255 teams, is scheduled for April at Walt Disney World's Epcot.

Two other teams from the Tampa Bay area have entries as well: Raytheon Systems is sponsoring the Deep Thunder team made up of students from Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Dunedin high schools. Baxter Healthcare has teamed up with Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.

FIRST is a New Hampshire non-profit group founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur, to increase student interest in science and engineering. Foundation sponsors include DaimlerChrysler Corp. Fund, General Motors, Motorola and Xerox. The first competition was in 1992. The foundation gives each group two boxes of parts for starters and has strict guidelines on what can or can't be added.

Most of the Navigators are from East Lake High School, where teachers Kathy Phebus and Joyce Svabek are the sponsors. Others are in Explorer Post 991, which includes students from Clearwater, Gibbs, Largo, Palm Harbor University, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg high schools.

"This is what gets kids turned on to learning," said Phebus, who teaches physics. "Our kids have just learned so much from this experience."

Nikki Johnson, an East Lake senior, is participating for a second year. She plans to major in engineering in college and is considering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech, Cornell and Harvard.

"It gives us a real firsthand look at the corporate side of engineering," Johnson said.

Added Brandon Rutledge, a junior: "It teaches us how to apply things. It teaches us how to solve problems."

During the six weeks of designing and building, the students put in an average of about 60 hours each. The adult volunteers spend about 100 hours each (95 percent their own time), working four nights a week after school and after work. In addition to the robot, students can work on the group's Web page ( or design its logo. Honeywell underwrites the cost, which can run $20,000 or more, Webb said.

"We're trying to teach kids about the fun of engineering and design and everything that goes into it," said Webb, who built his first robot 22 years ago and whose grandfather was Doc Webb of St. Petersburg's legendary Webb's City store. "We take their ideas and make it happen for them."

Beyond getting more students interested in engineering careers, the project helps the companies, too. It can show how to speed up the work process and help people become better managers.

"They view it as a community service and a recruiting avenue," said Glenn Kaufman, an engineer at Raytheon who is leading his team's effort ( "We've got five of our students that were student competitors coming back to us as interns or employees."

Raytheon works with about 40 students and has only 10 volunteers -- so they put in more volunteer time, sometimes running into 80-hour weeks during the design and build stage, Kaufman said. The team's high point was a second-place finish in 1995. "A lot of it depends on the intensity of the kids," Kaufman said. "It also depends upon the challenge of the match, a little luck and the design of your robot."

The projects are extracurricular activities for the students; some can earn academic credits for participating.

At Honeywell, the new, improved robot already has achieved one goal, even if it doesn't improve on last year's ranking.

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