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The Next Generation

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, a robotics competition takes on a deeper meaning.

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Next, he dons a pair of safety goggles, hulks over a chop saw and shaves the metal as if it were prosciutto, cutting precisely an inch off what could become an invaluable piece of aluminum.

If all goes well, the strip should help the arms of a robot to squeeze.

Nearly 20 students buzz in and out of the makeshift laboratory. They are a crew known in robotics circles as team 45, the "Chameleons." And for the past five weeks they — along with their counterparts at dozens of area schools — have been working after-hours and on weekends to solve a problem.

NASA put them up to it. Using a $4,000 "kit of parts" and a standard set of rules, the young scientists have designed and built a robot that must race 5 mph up a ramp, then successfully stack a number of plastic containers. With much practice and a little luck, the "zippy little machine will stack them up like a Pez dispenser and be king of the hill," says Cheryl Kayes, who teaches calculus, geometry and physics at Richmond Community. Kayes is also the team's faculty adviser. She says the mission is serious.

Team 45 is one of more than 70 teams made up of students and their professional mentors from 12 states and Washington, D.C., that will compete in the 12th-annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. The NASA/Virginia Commonwealth University Regional takes place March 6-8 at VCU's Siegel Center.

In recent years, the NASA-sponsored event has become a spectator sport, the Super Bowl of science fairs, a venue where dexterity and prowess are measured in brainpower not brawn.

But this year's competition is something more. For many, it's an opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of the space shuttle Columbia, its mission and the seven astronauts who spent their lives pushing science to space and beyond. It's also a place where the role of technology — in peacetime and in war — may be pondered by future pioneers. How will science matter most? What price are we willing to pay? These are the kinds of questions that stir some students more fiercely now than ever.

Take the members of team 45. As part of a NASA-sponsored educational program, they followed the shuttle's 16-day expedition. They felt connected. No one expected the worst.

"It was kind of weird when the Columbia tragedy happened," says Richmond Community senior Devin Baker, a fourth-year member of the robotics team and this year's "head of animation." It's his job to design a computerized version of the robot and demonstrate how it will work. Baker's team is focusing harder in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, he says.

"At first, you would hear a lot of whispers in the hallways," he recalls about going to school the day after Columbia exploded. "I think people were kind of scared" that it could have been terrorist-related, he says.

His teammate, senior William Owens, sidles up to Baker and admires the prototype swirling across the computer. The shuttle disaster and the recent "code orange" terrorism warnings have made Owens acutely aware of the impact of science, he says. "You learn to appreciate more what it can do and the importance of its design."

The concept inspires Brendan Larkin. "I don't want to go up in space but I do want to make robots that explore," he says. "I think we're headed for an era of building and improving rather than exploration." The high-school senior hopes to become a mechanical engineer after college, and credits his three years on the robotics team with helping make up his mind. He mentions this while explaining "two major sets of gear reductions" that when correctly computed could help the arms of their robot move quickly and best the competition. "Each year we've gained speed," he says, impassioned.

It's hard to say if it will be enough.

"I think they understand that they're the next generation of engineers," says Angelina Hopkins, Richmond Community's principal, who has stepped into the classroom to check the progress.

Evidence is everywhere — from the dry-erase board that shows the formulaic design of the robot's waking life to the "operating table" where students hover, ready to drill a bit or test a motor or simply improvise at a mentor's cue. Chance Threat, a senior, stands in the doorway watching the happy chaos. Because he's tall, he can see over the ramp that's used in the official competition. He'll likely be chosen as a "driver," he says, and will control the remote. His team's chances of winning are good, he says.

Even so, there are glitches to overcome. "We're still working on mounts," says Kayes, the 21-year veteran teacher. And, she notes: "We've got a weight problem." The robot can't exceed 130 pounds. By press time the robot will boxed up and shipped off for safekeeping until showtime.

Regardless of how their robot performs, team 45 has been told it will advance to the national championships this April at the Astrodome in Houston. At least two teams from each region are invited to attend along with the winner.

It appears to be happy news for this team of provocateurs and pushers-of-limits. "The fun stuff is actually going to the competition and winning," Threat confesses. He glances at the problem on the dry-erase board and reconsiders. "Physics, geometry, calculus —it's a little bit of everything," he muses, adding: "I guess all that math pays off." S

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