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Students build a robot that helps build careers

The robot can roll around, pick up balls, place them in a raised rack, raise itself off the ground on the rack and fend off other robots.

By CHRISTINE GRAEF

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


He stands 7 feet tall in his highest position, weighs 120 pounds and can shoot a ball into a hoop and climb through a jungle gym.

"At least most of the time," said John Giannoni, business planner at Raytheon Systems Co. in St. Petersburg. "Part of building the robot required learning how to make modifications so it would operate better."

Raytheon Systems has been sponsoring the Deep Thunder team (http://www.deepthunder.com) made up of students from Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Dunedin high schools. For six years the schools have been building a robot for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. Entry fees alone cost $5,000 for the first event and $4,000 for each additional entry. For Raytheon and hundreds of other corporate sponsors around the country, it is money well spent for recruitment.

"There are right now 115 job openings at Raytheon with no qualified applicants. There are at least 300,000 jobs in this market today," said Bob Marchant, a manager in systems engineering.

FIRST (http://www.usfirst.org) 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 Daimler Chrysler Corp. Fund, General Motors, Motorola and Xerox. The first competition was in 1992.

Each year FIRST designates specific tasks for teams to program robots to perform. The robot, named Deep Thunder, can roll around, pick up balls, place them in a raised rack, raise itself off the ground on the rack and fend off three other robots trying to do the same during a two-minute competition. Eight motors power various functions.

As with other FIRST teams, the group had only six weeks to assemble the robot from an approved kit of parts. They used 12-volt batteries, drills, motors from car windows and wheelchair wheels to construct the aluminum robot.

Over the years, about 30 volunteers from Raytheon have spent more than 1,000 hours a year working with 45 students to get ready for the annual FIRST national competition, which was in the spring. This year, about 10 Raytheon volunteers helped students each day for a few hours after school during the design and construction stages.

The team's high point was a second-place finish in 1995. This year Deep Thunder placed in the top 10 percent of the 429 teams who competed at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center.

"The program teaches more than competition," said Giannoni. "The students involved participate in brainstorming sessions to design the robot and are divided into presentation teams, guest speakers, Web site designers, animation, spirit committees and photography. They all find a strength."

Giannoni said one student last year found a career focus in photography. Other students, such as Preston McGowan, a 1999 graduate of Dunedin High School, have landed jobs with Raytheon and are in college majoring in engineering. McGowan is a part-time employee of Raytheon and a student at St. Petersburg Junior College.

"It definitely opened up a career for me," said McGowan.

Parents are encouraged to become involved. Those volunteering in the program said it promotes the concept of teamwork at a business level.

"Parents will get more involved when they see it's about their child's development and it's a valuable asset on their resumes," said Paul Kinas, parent of Dunedin High School junior Tony Kinas.

Two other teams from the Tampa Bay area entered, too: Baxter Healthcare teamed with Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, and Honeywell Inc. teamed with East Lake High School.

Deep Thunder placed 29th in both the regional and national competitions. The robot now resides at Raytheon Systems Co. on 72nd Street N, where it will continue to be used for presentations at schools and civic organizations.

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