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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


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The Robots Are Coming

Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology — BEST — puts New Mexico teens at the controls.

Story and photos by Hugh Dan Summers



"It's like something out of a B movie," says Molly Schneider as she walks by the collection of robots maneuvering through Mesilla Valley Mall in Las Cruces on a recent Saturday. Schneider has taken a break from shopping to watch as the PVC-and plywood-based robots scurry across a practice field trying to capture inflatable globes, hard-rubber balls and small cans of tomato paste.

robots
BEST students give their robots a workout at the Mesilla Valley Mall.

Raphael Pacheco, a junior from Clovis, is operating his team's creation, RoboCAT, by remote control. As RoboCAT extends a claw to grasp a ball from the field, another Clovis junior, Rosstin Ahmadian, reluctantly averts his eyes to explain to a passerby what is happening. "The balls represent either carbon or hydrogen, the cans of tomato are energy, and the balloon thingies are oxygen," he says. "We have to collect the right number of 'elements' and carry them back to our corner to create isooctane."

RoboCAT is only one of the more than two-dozen robots entered by teams of New Mexico middle- and high-school students vying to win the local level of a competition called Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST). At the local level, BEST is run by NMSU Electrical Engineering professor Dr. Sheila Moran.

Moran stays busy on what BEST participants call "Mall Day." She is approached by a steady stream of students and team sponsors, each wanting rules clarified or a replacement part from the tubs of electrical wire and circuit boards she has stacked nearby.

"She must put a lot into this," says Bonnie Stewart, a parent of one of the students, who is on hand to check out the scene. Stewart points across the mall at Moran, who has approached a gaggle of students bent over a robot. The boys are trying earnestly to reattach small motors that power the appendages the robot uses to grasp and manipulate items on the playing field.

The students are a team from Chapparal High School in Anthony. They focus intently while performing robot surgery in a makeshift emergency room set up by a group of Las Cruces teens who call themselves Project Neo.

Made up of BEST veterans from Las Cruces High and Mayfield High, the youth in Project Neo are sitting out this year's event as they wait to compete in a higher level of competition. To stay involved, they are offering their expertise as robot surgeons — both as community service and for somewhat less altruistic reasons. "There is an award for engineering outreach," admits Kyle Rankin, a member of Project Neo and a home-schooled senior, as he aims a soldering iron at a loose wire.

A few of the students whom Rankin helps later express surprise that the self-assured teen is not, in fact, a teacher. "He can fix anything," a student from Chapparal High says admiringly.

"I've learned to machine parts and run CAD (computer aided design) software," Rankin says when asked what competing in robotics has taught him. "I can go out and get a job right now and earn significantly more than the minimum wage. But, with all this experience with engineering I'm hoping it will make it significantly easier when I get to college."



Three young girls walk by, eyeing the robots as they roll across the playing field. Berbandy Yanez, a seventh-grader, smiles when an onlooker catches her somewhat mesmerized by the scene.

"My school does things like this, too," she says. "I wanted to do it last year but I didn't get to. I want to next year, though."

Her friend Annie Reber nods. "It looks fun."

"Kinda nerdy and complicated," says the third, Portales sixth-grader Caitlin Summers, as she insists she couldn't build something like RoboCAT. She eyes another robot with a slick black-and-blue paint job and the word "Scorpion" scrawled along its base. "I'd like to paint one, though," she adds with a giggle.

The girls move on to watch a third robot, which is being controlled by a young man one of them seems to know. An adult standing next to the robot driver cringes as the robot turns the wrong way when chasing a rolling ball.

"I teach at La Academia De Delores Huerta," says the adult, David Lopez, after moving away from his students. "It's (the BEST Competition) very good for them. I think the opportunity to try something and not worry about making mistakes, just getting your hands dirty it's important."

A murmur rises in the background as a robot on the far side of the practice field flips over while reaching into the air for an inflatable globe suspended from guide wires.

"You know," Lopez continues, "there's this one girl on our team that didn't feel like she belonged. She didn't feel like she could do anything, but one day the kids kept breaking the string that connected a motor to the robot's arm. This girl she knew how to weave yarn to make lanyards. She rolled string together to make a more sturdy rope. That was her contribution to the team and she knew she belonged. This is a pretty special opportunity for our kids."



The session at Mesilla Valley Mall is an opportunity for students to show their creations to the public and practice for the actual competition, Oct. 24 on the NMSU campus. The event is in its fourth year; the winning team from 2008, Rio Rancho High, is present and having mixed results. Four students in matching blue T-shirts are looking forlorn as they hesitantly seek the help of adults nearby.

"Going all right," says one Rio Ranch robot operator, "except our robot started falling apart at the end."

"Are you confident going into next week's competition?" they're asked by a teacher from a rival team.

"We know what we need to do to get ready. We won last year," replies another teen.

"We went on to regional competition in Denton, Texas," says a third.

One of Moran's NMSU students, Irene Abhai, appears during a momentary break from helping students deal with unexpected problems.

"I'm mainly with brain support," she says matter-of-factly, referring to the simple computers used to control the robots. "If they have trouble programming the brain and getting it to control their robot, I help them."

Did they have programs like this when you were in high school? she's asked.

"Well, I went to high school in Kenya," she says. "We learned more theory and totally nothing practical. This will help students when they get to college. The hands-on experience will make it better for them."

As the event winds down, Moran is finally free to offer her own insight into the competition: "The main mission behind BEST is to try to help students get into and understand the engineering process. It teaches science and math and working together to solve a problem.

"Of course," she continues, "everybody says they know how to work as a team, but it takes a real knack to do it correctly."

As Mall Day ends and students begin carrying their robots and cardboard boxes toward the fleet of school buses parked outside, a teenage girl approaches one of the few remaining teams.

"What's that?" she asks.

A tall, lanky blond boy smiles at her. "It's our robot," he says, using the remote control to extend the robot's arm toward her. He asks shyly, "Would you like to shake his hand?"



Las Cruces writer Hugh Dan Summers covered Mine That Bird's
return to New Mexico in our October issue.

 

 

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