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Mechanical masterminds

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science on Sunday, the dinosaur fossils and replicas from some 65 million years ago had to move over for a decidedly more modern species: robots.

The museum was playing host to a robotics expo, where students who are involved in an extracurricular program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) showed off their robotic creations.

Jack Hanson works on his team’s robot before a demonstration held at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science on Sunday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Jack Hanson works on his team’s robot before a demonstration held at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science on Sunday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

The program is offered at different levels, and the sophistication of the robots varied accordingly — from simple, Lego-based machines built by 6- and 7-year-olds to robots programmed to be fully independent by high school students.

A high school group called the AHERT Ravens, showed off their robot called Felix.

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Felix, who looks less like Star Wars’ C-3PO and more like a Mars land rover, is programmed to take on other robots in head-to-head battles in a sort of robot gladiator arena.

The group of nine, mostly home-schooled students are headed — with Felix — to the World Championship in St. Louis in April.

The Ravens, with three coaches and other mentors, have been working on Felix since September, spending about 10 to 12 hours per week in practices. Felix can function on his own for up to 30 seconds and can also be “driven” via remote control by members of the team to retrieve rings and place them on rungs in a field of battle.

Ravens member Molly Thomas, 15, said she hopes the program picks up in popularity in New Mexico. Right now, there aren’t enough teams to warrant a state competition, so the AHERT Ravens had to go to a contest in Arizona to qualify for Worlds.

“For us, we work really hard, and we’re good at what we do,” Thomas said. “We want more competition in New Mexico.”

A new affiliation with 4-H in Bernalillo County may give more students an opportunity to join the program, said Kari Barrera, who is one of the AHERT Ravens’ mentors and helped coordinate the event.

Right now, most of the teams in the state are made up of home-schooled students, or students who met through Girl Scout troops and other community groups, Barrera said.

One sticking point may be the cost. The Ravens estimate it will cost about $15,000 for the team and their families to travel to the weeklong world championships. That includes the cost of parts for the robot.

That means the Ravens are learning how to fund-raise, as well as a lot about science, technology, engineering and math.

FIRST was developed over 20 years ago to get children interested in science, technology, engineering and math, said Sandy Trissell, who helps run the program in the state.

Thomas Torres, 3, watches one of the robots at the “Gear Guys” table at a robotics expo Sunday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Thomas Torres, 3, watches one of the robots at the “Gear Guys” table at a robotics expo Sunday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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