Teens rise early for robotics challenge, giving disc golf a fling

Teams around the world hear assignment at the same moment

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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For about 700 robot enthusiasts, Saturday's 7:30 a.m. unveiling was a little bit like Christmas morning … with a dose of dread.

The session at Evergreen High School was part of unwrapping an annual robotics challenge. It started when this year's competition was revealed in an international simulcast.

"I've been waiting for this since last season ended," said Josh Pigman, a member of the Evergreen school district's "Green Wrenches" team.

"I love building stuff," Pigman said as more than 20 teammates brainstormed after the kickoff.

The robotics program is a way to put what he's been learning toward a hands-on project, he said.

But an hour or so earlier, as details of the challenge were being revealed, the Mountain View junior started to think: "This will be insane."

A three-word phrase started going through Pigman's mind: "Don't throw Frisbees! Don't throw Frisbees! Don't throw Frisbees!"

And this year's challenge, of course, is a 'bot-based version of disc golf. The teams will have six weeks to design and build their robots before the March 8-9 regional competition in Portland's Memorial Coliseum.

"This is a lot more difficult than last year," when the challenge was a version of robot basketball, said Austin Lutz, a junior at Union High.

Last year, the robot had to grasp a ball. "It's harder to pick up something flat," Lutz said.

The 7:30 a.m. timetable was a result of the program's simultaneous rollout. The presentation to more than 51,000 students at 83 sites around the world was broadcast at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time.

It could have been worse.

"In Hawaii, it started at 5:30 a.m.," pointed out Debra Mumm-Hill, Pacific Northwest director of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition.

By 9 a.m., the local teams were breaking the challenge down into tasks. Their robots will have to gather the discs and store them.

To score, the robots will fling, push or drop the discs through slots of different sizes, heights and point values.

Skyview High's Stormbots are back for the 2013 challenge, while Camas and Washougal high schools are teaming up again as the Mean Machine.

The Green Wrenches represent Evergreen, Heritage, Mountain View and Union high schools.

As he jotted down suggestions, volunteer coach Bob Silva reminded the Green Wrenches that their brainstorming session was a chance to toss out ideas -- not judge them.

And then came a suggestion for helping their robot ascend a metal-tube pyramid: rockets.

"I'm going to judge that one," Silva responded. "No."

All the teams have some basic material to work with. In addition to learning the challenge Saturday morning, the 34 teams received kits containing parts they'll need.

"We get calls from coaches who say there are no instructions" in the box, Mumm-Hill said.

That is a big part of the challenge, she explained.

"There are no instructions."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.