April 8, 2013

Messalonskee robotics club wins state meet, heads to national event

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Building high-functioning robots, once a science-fiction fantasy, has become a reality, a hobby and a bright career path for the student members of Messalonskee High School's robotics club.

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Members of the Messalonskee High School 2648 FIRST Robotics club at the Oakland school on Monday. Co-captains McKenzie Brunelle, left front, and Sabine Fountaine, hold the team banner along with members, from left, Taylor Ferguson, Robert Klein, Amy Pinkham, Brady Snowden, Bradley Bickford and Justin Shuman. The team won first place recently in regional competition and will advance to the world championship.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Messalonskee High School's robotics club celebrates it first-place finish at the Pine Tree FIRST Robotics Competition Saturday in Lewiston.

Contributed photo

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Take club co-captains Sabine Fontaine, 17, and McKenzie Brunelle, 16, who led their team over 37 others to a school-first regional win in a robot sporting competition Saturday.

Brunelle used to want to be a psychologist, because she wanted to help people, she said. During a trip to MaineGeneral Medical Center's Thayer campus sponsored by the robotics club, she said, she saw a robot perform a hysterectomy. The experience made her realize she could use her hobby to help people in another way.

"Engineering pays a lot more, a lot faster," she said. "And you can help just as much."

Fontaine is pursuing a career in engineering or computer science, and has been accepted by Harvey Mudd College, a private school in California that focuses on science and engineering. She sees a future, she said, where almost everything is voice-activated and cars drive themselves.

"I never would have gotten interested in it without the club," she said.

This year, the club will move on to the national level after overcoming all competitors at the Pine Tree FIRST Robotics Competition at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

In pursuit of the title, three-robot squads, controlled remotely by their human builders, square off on a court, where they play offense or defense in an attempt to shoot the most plastic disks into slots set 9 feet above the ground. At the end, the robots score bonus points by climbing the three levels of a pyramid-shaped metal frame.

The Messalonskee club won the finals in a 122-107 nail-biter, after splitting the first two rounds.

Team Coach Jamee Luce said the team members put in many hours trying to decide what skills they wanted to emphasize — shooting the plastic disk, playing defense, and being able to climb the pyramid.

"Certainly, we believed we had built a good robot but I don't think we went in thinking that we would win," Luce said. "There were a lot of good robots there."

Team members had fun designing, building and learning to drive their robot, but they were also learning skills that could translate into high-paying jobs, according to Bruce Maxwell, a Colby College professor who has taught robotics for the past 15 years.

"Their robots are thinking about things like obstacle detection," he said. "They're really taking on simplified versions of the same problems that everyday robots are going to be solving and doing in the really near future."

As an example, he pointed to the Roomba, a robot vacuum-cleaning system that guides itself around a dirty floor, sucking up dirt as it goes.

"The Roomba is no more complex than the things that they're doing in the high school," he said. "And a lot of people are buying Roombas."

Maxwell said that the students who make their robotics hobby a career by entering engineering or computer science fields have "an extremely bright future," with big paychecks and a choice of jobs.

Maxwell also said the field of robotics is growing like never before, spurred on by the recent development of small, powerful motors, lightweight batteries and light frames.

"It's an incredible time to be getting into robotics," he said.

The advances have led to scores of recreational, sports-playing robots. In addition to the battling robots that bash each other's gears out in gladiator-style competitions on television programs, robots have been designed in recent years to play pingpong, hockey, chess, bowling, golf and the violin, among many others.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Messalonskee High School's robotics club competes in Lewiston over the weekend.

Contributed photo

click image to enlarge

Messalonskee High School's robotics club celebrates it first-place finish at the Pine Tree FIRST Robotics Competition Saturday in Lewiston.

Contributed photo


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