November 26, 2013
By Neil Pierson
Issaquah club uses robots to jumpstart career paths, competitive juices
Robotics will likely be a growing field for today’s high-school graduates to pursue, and the Issaquah Robotics Society is trying to create a competitive buzz around their highly technical interests.
The robotics society, marking its 10th year this year, will begin its next season of competition in January. Like other student-led teams in the state — which compete under the rules of FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — they’ll have six weeks to build a robot for entrance in various regional competitions.
Last year, Issaquah High School’s team traveled to Portland, Ore., where they finished 5-4 in qualification matches and was among the eight finalists. Two weeks later, at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, they went 11-1 to earn the top qualifying seed, although they were upset in the semifinals.
“To go down like that is disappointing, but we were still very proud of them,” said Brett Wortzman, an Issaquah High computer science teacher and the club’s adviser. “It was a great showing, and we learned a little bit from that, which is what enabled us to do so well at Girls Generation.”
Girls Generation is technically an off-season competition, but the 15 girls who comprised the Issaquah team at the Oct. 19 event were plenty hungry to win. They defeated 30 other all-female teams at Tahoma High School in Covington.
“It was great, because usually, when you go to normal competitions, you look around and it’s mostly guys there,” said sophomore Sarah Powazek, who drove the robot. “So, the fact that it was only girls, it really changed the atmosphere of it as well.”
The team’s robot Gigabot is an 88-pound contraption inspired by the “Back to the Future” movies. It’s designed to scoop up Frisbees and spit them out in rapid fashion, using a complex system of computer-animated design, electronics and pneumatics, or air pressure.
The teams try to score points by shooting their Frisbees into a goal, and at Girls Generation, they accumulated points by Gigabot climbing a large pyramid in the middle of the playing field.
Caroline Moore, a junior and one of the team’s captains, said she began experimenting with robotics in the fourth grade. Younger students can compete in FIRST events by building Lego robots, and many of the Issaquah School District’s elementary and middle schools now have their own robotics teams.
Moore is considering a career in computer science, and has been inspired through the robotics society.
“Doing something like this, you just learn so much, and you also get an application for all the stuff you do in high school,” Moore said. “People always ask, ‘When am I going to use calculus?’ And you do use this.”
One of the driving forces for the robotics society is its wide array of adult mentors. Professionals from companies like Microsoft, Boeing and Triumph Aerospace Systems often work side by side with the students.
“You get the chance to really work with engineers, which is an opportunity you don’t usually get until you’re an engineer yourself,” said junior Spencer Tickman, a team captain. “They teach us a lot about robotics, but they also teach us about how it is to work with real people in the real world.”
Wortzman said the school district deserves credit for offering more classes in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and having a competitive outlet like the robotics society helps attract interest, too.
The Issaquah team showcases itself at a variety of community events each year, and their business model helped them win an entrepreneurship award.
“We’ve been around for 10 years. Not a lot of other teams make it that far,” Wortzman said. “We’re relatively self-sufficient. We do a lot of fundraising every year, we have corporate sponsors, we apply for grants and things like that, but we’re not in debt. We actually have a pretty good surplus of funds built up that allow us to do a lot of things.”