Visitors to a seaside community might think high school students would prefer sand to science, and that there’s no way engineering would be a popular extracurricular activity. Obviously, they don’t know about Dos Pueblos High School’s Engineering Academy, which has established quite a beachhead for robotics.
The whole world may soon know, though — if the academy’s 32-member robotics team has anything to say about it.
Before you laugh, consider this: Already this year, Dos Pueblos has entered two regional robotics competitions and won them both. The tournaments in Los Angeles and San Diego each drew about 50 teams.
Apart from winning the tournaments, Dos Pueblos both times also took home separate engineering awards, which were bestowed on just four teams.
All this, and the team has only been around for three years. (The tournaments started in the early 1990s.)
At the very least, the school’s robotics team, in which every senior in the school’s engineering academy participates, is having a tremendous season.
On April 16, the Dos Pueblos squad will be in Atlanta, competing in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition international championships with 350 teams.
Mind you, the team won’t be squaring off in some high school auditorium. On the contrary, the battles for supreme robotic glory will be fought in the Georgia Dome, home to the Atlanta Falcons football team — as well as the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Although the matches usually occur in a professional-sports arena, the specifics of the game itself change every year. The point is to drop a brand-new, unforeseen engineering problem on the students, who have a finite amount of time — six weeks, to be exact — to come up with a solution.
One thing never changes: Every year, the appearance of the indoor battle-court calls to mind the strangely transfixing sets of the American Gladiators TV show of the late 1980s and ‘90s.
In this year’s robotics game, a court is subdivided by a six-and-a-half-foot-tall rack, topped by what appear to be larger-than-usual yoga balls. The rules of the game are pretty intricate, but the general idea is to build a robot that will knock the giant spheres off the rack, zoom over to a bouncing ball, pick it up off the ground, and hoist it back over the rack. (Eight points.)
The success of the Dos Pueblos team no doubt has something to do with the school’s location, just a few miles from UCSB and adjacent to the high-tech hotbed known as the Hollister Corridor. Local technology companies provide much-needed sponsorships and mentors, but it is the kids, with the help of their teacher, who are ultimately responsible for the end product. And this year’s 150-pound end product is a sight to behold.
To gain full appreciation, it’s necessary to know the genesis of the team’s unofficial name, the D’Penguineers. The official group name is Robotics Team 1717 because it was the 1,717th FIRST team to register when the Dos Pueblos academy was established. But then a student noticed that the address for the team’s student-created Web site — DPengineering.org — resembles the word “Penguin.”
“We didn’t do it to shun the Chargers,” the teacher, or coach, Amir Abo-Shaeer, director of the 3-year-old engineering academy, assured fans of the school’s nickname. “It just came to us organically.”
Considering this bit of trivial knowledge, it is plainly clear that the sleek black robot — with its golden “beak” of a ball holder, its white “stomach” of an electrical board, and its cream-colored “feet” of little wheels — is indeed a penguin. Watch the video of the robot in action, and the impression of a determined penguin becomes somehow even stronger.
“We run this like a business,” Abo-Shaeer said. “Presentation is part of that.”
Of course, judges wouldn’t have conferred the team awards for top-notch engineering had their design been merely skin deep. (Or would that be “feather deep?”) For one thing, the penguin is designed to grow taller, like a firetruck ladder or forklift, so it can deposit the ball atop the rack. (12 points.)
But many robots in the competition have that ability. It was the subtler feats of engineering that separated the Dos Pueblos penguin from the rest of the rookery. For instance, the wheels used for grabbing hold of the ball turn only one way, so the ball, after getting vacuumed into place, cannot be easily fumbled.
All told, researching, developing and building the robot cost around $13,000, which was covered by and large by the team’s nine local sponsors: Afar Communications, ATK, Flir Systems, Impulse Internet Services, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), National Security Technologies, Raytheon, Renco and Valley Precision Products — a veritable who’s who of high-tech heavyweights.
“We just have a lot of fancy things on this robot,” Abo-Shaeer said.
On a broader level, the point of the tournament is to get students as excited about science and engineering as they tend to get about high school sports.
Student Sam Ridgeway said, for him, robotics has taken precedence over track.
“I have mostly foregone my sport for this, just because it is so exciting,” he said.
Nico Ruvalcaba, the lead horn player in the jazz band, has told the music teacher he can’t participate in any competitions this spring. He said his teacher understands.
“It’s basically a big hangout,” Ruvalcaba said of the robotics class. “When we’re working, to me it feels like I’m hanging out with a couple buddies who are getting together and working on cars.”
Unlike a hangout or an extracurricular activity, however, every member of the robotics team gets a grade.
Naturally, the students’ glowing endorsements of the class fill Abo-Shaeer with pride, but the idea that he might be “stealing” participants from other activities does make him wince a little.
The aim, he said, is to raise students’ enthusiasm for science to the level of sports, not above it. But of his students’ enthusiasm, he added, “It is what it is. That’s why it strikes me as so odd more people don’t know about this.”
Every year, the season launches with a sort of virtual starting gun. US First, the organization in charge of the tournament, releases a computer-animated video laying out the rules of the new contest.
For the next six weeks, the length of the school day for students and teacher alike expands dramatically. At first, they work on the project for six days a week, staying after school every day for a mere six hours or so. But as the deadline draws nearer, they begin to work seven days a week. Eventually, the length of their days becomes downright ridiculous.
In the final weeks, students and teacher stay in the classroom until 11 p.m., then midnight, then 2 a.m., then 3 a.m.
This year, toward the very end, students were in the classroom until 7 in the morning — just one hour before the first-period bell.
“I have my own little cot in the back” of the classroom, Ruvalcaba said.
Abo-Shaeer said when he was designing the curriculum for the academy several years ago, he knew he wanted some sort of “capstone course,” preferably one that was based on a competition.
“We’d heard about this robotics competition that was out there,” he said.
Himself a former mechanical engineer in the private sector, Abo-Shaeer decided to investigate, driving out to a tournament in Inglewood at the Great Western Forum, the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers. When he entered the stadium, his jaw dropped.
“I remember walking into the arena, and after about 20 seconds it was like, ‘OK, we’re doing this,’” he said.
Like most of the general public, Abo-Shaeer hadn’t realized how big a deal the robotics competition had become.
The event is bankrolled — with a capital B — by companies such as NASA, GM and Lockheed Martin, which are more than just a little aware of the waning interest in the field of engineering exhibited by today’s American youth. The money spent on the events can reach $500,000.
Abo-Shaeer said he wants to do his part to help rid the nation of the notion that ”science is for these special people, but the average person can’t do it.”
This year, to help get the word out, the team traveled with two buses filled with spectators, many of them potential recruits from the junior high schools.
“We (in the United States) don’t necessarily celebrate scientific achievements in the same way other countries do,” he said.
As for the students, many of them want to be engineers, but not all are so sure.
“I’ve always known I wanted to go into engineering or physics,” said Erika Bildsten, whose father is a physicist at UCSB. “I’ve never been sure (which one) and I’m still not.”
For Abo-Shaeer, however, the main goal isn’t even about recruiting talent for this country’s lagging field of engineering. It’s more about showing students why all those abstract concepts they studied through the years actually matter.
“They get it now, as opposed to their second year in college,” he said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t even happen until you get your first job.”
In addition to Bildsten, Ridgeway and Ruvalcaba, this year’s Team 1717 members are Alex Adams, Meha Agrawal, Daniel Barrett, Will Campbell, Kevin Cheng, Scott Cook, Kieran Dunne, Sahar El Abbadi, Erika Eskenazi, Omar Gonzalez, Val Harbunou, Ricky Hayes, Jasper Jacobs, Wei Jiang, Trevor Johnson, Robert Kim, Matt Logan, Stephen MacFarlane, Scott Martinis, Joseph McDaniel, Zak McFarland, James McKinny, Michael Reveles, J.R. Riggs, Natalie Schauser, Melody Tan, Daniel Turvey, Wei Wu and Xuyang Zhang.
Click here for information on how you can support the program through the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Foundation.