Camas-based robotics team advances to worlds

Upcoming trip to St. Louis follows pair of regional victories

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoTJ Houze, right, cuts wood during a meeting of Mean Machine members on Monday evening at Liberty Middle School in Camas.

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photoTeam Mean Machine poses after winning first place in a recent FIRST Robotics Regional competition in Seattle.

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FIRST Robotics Competition

CAMAS — When Mohit Abraham brought the idea of a competitive robotics team with him from the East Coast, future team member Brett Johnson and others envisioned student-operated battle robots.

Instead, the game Abraham describedinvolved robots zooming around a “field” trying to place tubes on scoring racks. It was dizzying and unfamiliar, and by the first competitive season, there were only five team members left. The team finished 24th in its first Portland regional in 2008.

From those humble beginnings, the Camas-based Mean Machine team has experienced a meteoric rise, culminating in its first-ever regional wins this winter in Portland and Seattle against dozens of other teams and a spot in the world championships in St. Louis.

“I pretty much broke down and cried,” said Johnson, a 17-year-old Camas High senior and the team’s lone remaining founding member, on his reaction to his team’s victories. “I was in a way a proud parent of a program that I know will continue for years.”

Johnson and his teammates are currently preparing their robot, a 28-inch wide by 36-inch long aluminum creation called Wallace and Gromit, for the FIRST Championships, to be held April 27-30 at the Edward Jones Dome, the home of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. The competition features hundreds of teams from across the world divided into four divisions.

FIRST, a nonprofit organization that started in New Hampshire in 1992, challenges students to get interested in math, science and engineering, while also learning other skills such as business, teamwork, problem-solving and public relations.

Members of the Mean Machine team gave a presentation to members of the Camas School Board onMonday afternoon at their design space, dubbed “The Shop,” on Liberty Middle School’s campus. The team has 26 members, drawing from Camas, Washougal, Hockinson and Hayes Freedom high schools.

The presentation included detailed explanations of how their robot was built, displays of their robot’s capabilities and video of their regional-winning performances. Currently, students from the Camas School District do not receive school credit for their work despite often spending 20 hours or more designing, building and testing the team’s robot. But that could change as soon as next school year, Superintendent Mike Nerland said. The school board could approve the class as an elective credit after evaluating how much work the students performed and the standards associated with it.

“To hear about the process from beginning to end — the teamwork, attention to detail and camaraderie, it’s truly amazing,” Nerland said. “Obviously, it’s going to help the kids when they get out into the real world.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition involves six teams on the 27-foot wide by 54-foot long “field.” Robots, which the team’s driver operates remotely, scoop up and place tubes of different colors and shapes on racks. In the round’s final 10 seconds, the top four teams deploy a mini-bot that latches onto and then shoots up a nine-foot pole, with the first one getting the most points. The team with the most points at the end of a round wins.

The robot’s tangle of motors, wires and chains are visible to onlookers. It also has two “lifters” that stand up to five feet tall and can be extended higher.

The contests involve precision and calm under pressure and often are played before screaming fans.

“It’s just as, if not more, exciting than the Super Bowl,” Johnson said of the competitions.

Team members credited their nine adult mentors, who represent various companies, the community and sponsors, for helping them become a success. Sponsors provide equipment necessary to operate the robot. The mentors act as advisors during the process. The community has been generous in its support, Johnson said, adding the team still needs to raise $600 for its St. Louis trip.

“It’s not about the robot,” said Abraham, a 31-year-old sales engineer whose wife, Brianna, teaches at Camas High School. “It’s about the student experience.”

The smoothness in which the robot moves belies the complicated and at times frustrating work that went into ironing out its various kinks. Team members described their work on the robot and its adjoining mini-bot as a painstaking process. But the success they have achieved and the bonds that have been forged along the way made it worthwhile, team members agreed.

Abraham and Johnson each said they were unsure what to expect from the world championships, except that the teams participating would be the cream of the crop.

Johnson’s stated goal for the competition is for the team to finish in the top 40 of its division. He already feels like a winner, he said, because FIRST has taught him life-changing lessons that he will take with him to college — his top choice is Georgia Tech — and beyond.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, or ray.legendre @col_smallcities