Robotic season: Frisbee-throwing machines on board

WARREN – Like a football coach, Greg Christman was assessing his team Saturday, trying to figure how the students from Warren G. Harding High School would meet the challenge of the 2013 robotic season.

”Wow! There’s work ahead of us. It’s something we can do. We do it every year,” Christman told more than 30 students assembled as this year’s version of the Warren G. Harding FIRST Robotics Team that has been among elite nationally recognized elite high school teams.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Champion, Girard and Fitch high schools also have fielded FIRST robotics teams.

Christman was giving the group a pep talk on this first day of a grueling six-week period when the competitors are assembled for a season that extends into April during regional and national competitions. He looked at his roster, pointing out that he has lost 15 seniors off a team of 31 last year.

”We only have five seniors this year and only two of them are really experienced,” he said, sizing up how the students will fit into various teams that design, build, power and promote the robots, which this year must compete on a 27-by-54-foot carpeted field, scoring points by throwing Frisbee discs into goals during a 2-minute, 15-second match.

Saturday was the first day of the season when the game ”Ultimate Ascent” was revealed to the students and their engineering and educational mentors who help in planning the strategy of how to build the 135-pound mobile machines. The robots can earn bonus points by scaling a pyramid-shaped ladder.

”For me, it’s all about building the robot,” said Natalie Hall, a 14-year-old freshman who represents the new blood Christman and others are banking on this year.

Christman’s wife, Debbie, who like her husband is a retired teacher, points out that the robotics team at Harding boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, with more than 95 percent of the team members going on to post-graduate education, many of them in the field of engineering.

She is mentoring a sub team that already is planning on how to promote the team and its robot. The team sat at a table in the cafeteria brain-storming. It’s the first of more than 25 hours that team members will put in on the project.

”We might use small discs with our team name. We’ve had cheers, chair covers or any number of things in the past that promote our team. We’re thinking we might use these small flags,” she said, twirling one around in her fingers.

In another part of the room, Nick Cassudakis, a managing director at Delphi, took time to introduce his young plant engineers to students and establish a mentoring relationship between the teens and the young professionals.

”Some of the computerized simulation these students are involved with is college-level stuff. It’s some in-depth engineering,” said Cassudakis, a 1975 graduate of Harding. ”I’m really here to ensure we have the right environment for the team and mentors,” he said.

Delphi has served as the corporate sponsor for the Harding team since its inception 16 years ago, including the 1999 national championship year.

Last year’s Harding team, Delphi E.L.I.T.E. Team 48, took first place regional finishes in Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, and an overall 41-11 competition record at three regional events, and placed in the top eight in their division in the World Championship in St. Louis.