Orlando team to compete in international championship

Some teens play soccer, and some teens make robots that play soccer.

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  • | 7:41 a.m. April 15, 2010
Photos courtesy of Wendy Austin and Mike Walker - Matt Kaplan, Ennio Claretti and Skylar Goodell compete last year.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Austin and Mike Walker - Matt Kaplan, Ennio Claretti and Skylar Goodell compete last year.
  • Winter Park - Maitland Observer
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Some teens play soccer, and some teens make robots that play soccer.

The Exploding Bacon Robotics team from Orlando will be traveling to Atlanta this week, where they will be pitted against 344 teams representing six countries at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Championship on Thursday, April 15.

They've spent every day for the last six weeks building their robot, with the help of an engineer mentor. Now, the 30-person team, made up of students from 12 Orlando-area schools, including eight from Winter Park High School, will toggle, spin and thrust their robot through a game of remote-controlled soccer in the hopes of winning it all.

They just got back from the Inaugural North Carolina Regional held in Raleigh, N.C. on April 1, where they were a part of the winning alliance along with teams 1086 Blue Cheese from Virginia and 48 Delphi Elite from Ohio. The team also won the General Motors Industrial Design Award, which celebrates form and function in design.

It won't be Bacon's first time at the Super Bowl of youth robotics competitions. They've gone every year since they started their club in team mom Wendy Austin's living room in 2006.

"I would not trust myself to design a robot, but I'm thrilled that my children can," Wendy joked.

Wendy and a few other mentors started the club when her son's high school didn't have one. She's seen him be a "driver," the remote control operator of the robot, on one of the final four teams in the championships. He's since gone onto college. Now her daughter Katie Austin, 16, helps build the robot.

"I love doing anything mechanical because I get to build things. I get to get my hands dirty," said Katie, who plans to major in engineering in college.

Katie was also on the pit crew in the regional competition they won to qualify them for the championship. It's much like a pit crew at a NASCAR race.

"It's exciting, it's crazy and it gets a little crowded," Katie said.

Between matches, the pit crew must repair any damages done to the robot during competition. Because the matches are chosen randomly, a team could have anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours to fix their robot.

Kris Walters, 14, who was also on the pit crew, called it being the "handyman of the robot."

The team's handy work paid off, and they brought home the gold. And the team said there was lots of hugging going around after the announcement of their win.

"I may have knocked some people over," Wendy said.

That warm family feeling is what the team said sets them apart. And like their Web site says, they're not just about building robots, they're about building people. Walters attested to that, and said he felt like he walked into a room of friends when he went to his first meeting.

That friendly atmosphere might also be what drives the kids to work so hard on the robot. Most of the members of the team have no idea how to engineer a robot when they join the club, so a lot of dedication and hard work goes into it. The team met every day for the six-week build. Watching them learn is what the mentors agreed was the most satisfying.

"It's rewarding to see the kids accomplish a goal you helped with," said mentor Kelly Wildermuth. "You feel proud. It's really cool to see them succeed and you feel like you've succeeded too."

Wendy is most proud of the fact that all of the team's alumni have gone to college. Many of them majored in engineering, which is the FIRST organization's goal — to spark an interest in science and technology-based careers. Being in the club gets teens working with professionals in the field as early as middle school and offers opportunities to network and build confidence in business atmospheres.

Wendy said that getting kids to consider technological careers is important for America's economy, because the country is starting to "lose the race" in that category. One problem, though, is that most kids don't realize how fun engineering is, mentor Ryan Morin said.

"If we don't start treating engineers like rock stars we're going to fall behind," Wendy said. "And this is one way middle school and high school kids can become rock stars even if they can't sink a basket."

Walters knows the value of being around intellectual rock stars.

"The best strategy in life is to hang out with people who are better than you, so that you always have drive to better yourself," he said.

Bacon Bits

Exploding Bacon Robotics, which includes eight Winter Park H.S. students, will be competing in the Super Bowl of youth robotics in Atlanta Thursday, April 15 through Saturday, April 17.

Watch the competition live by visiting www.robotics.nasa.gov. They are on the Newton field. It is also televised on the NASA channel.

For more information, visit explodingbacon.com.


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