hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

February 27, 2014

A boost from NASA

Students get cash, inspiration for robotics competition

By Mike LaBella
Staff Writer

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A lot of things have been named after Haverhill’s famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier, including a city and glacier in Alaska.

Closer to home, there’s a health center, a road, a middle school and, of course, Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School.

Now, students on Whittier Regional’s new Robotics Team have linked the noted poet and abolitionist to a high-tech marvel they will use in upcoming robotics competitions in an effort to “abolish” their opponents.

To honor their school’s poet namesake who also fought to abolish slavery, team members named their robot “The Metallic Poet.”

With NASA as a sponsor and the deadline for the students’ first big competition looming, the Robotics Team is highly motivated. Fifteen to 20 students have been meeting every day after school and on Saturdays to design and build a robot they hope will scoop up a large rubbery ball and propel it into a goal.

“We tried the launch and it worked pretty well for the first time,” said Alex Matos, a Whittier sophomore from Groveland. “A lot of people think we should be further along or done by now, but it has taken time.”

Nick Nicolosi, a junior from Haverhill said, “We might have played with the catapult prototypes for too long, but we have it now.”

The school’s FIRST Robotics Team (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) will compete against 50 other teams at Nashua South High School Feb. 28 to March 1.

The Whittier students won a $6,000 grant from NASA and received $1,000 each from BAE Systems in Nashua and Raytheon Company in support of their efforts.

“Companies sponsor us because they recognize the importance of introducing students to engineering,” said Robert Beaton, an electronics/robotics teacher at Whittier.

Beaton said the money was used to buy the software, electronics and a kit of parts to build the robot.

Whittier’s team is seeking further donations as it is allowed to spend an additional $2,500 on parts. The team will also compete in a second competition March 28 and 29 at Northeastern University in Boston.

During a recent work session, students looked at and adjusted a tangle of wires and components on what looks like a complex lawnmower. A D-Link wireless hub, which allows it to communicate to the driver station laptop, sits near an on-board air compressor, electrical motors and transmissions. Surgical tubing is wrapped around a handle to provide spring on the launch bar.

“It’s been an experience,” Nick Nicolosi said. “It’s been fun to create something using our knowledge that can actually drive.’’

Alex Matos agreed.

“I wanted to expand my knowledge in robotics and get some experience with programming,” he said. “It’s been enjoyable just building something and seeing it work.”

Because the deadline for completing their robot was Feb. 18, team members planned to come to school and work on it on Monday and Tuesday of February school vacation. The “Metallic Poet” had to be packaged up at the end of the day Feb. 18 until was delivered to Nashua.

While robotics students have brainstormed to solve programming and design glitches to allow them to drive the robot from laptop computers, students from other vocational-technical programs at Whittier have eagerly chipped in.

Carpentry students constructed a large table in the robotics shop where the robot was built. Machine technology and metal fabrication students manufactured an aluminum base for the wheels and loader. Parents donated pizza and other food for the team’s Saturday meetings.

Beaton founded the team with fellow teacher Chris Speropolous. Both were hired at Whittier two years ago and have experience with robotics competitions. As teachers at Lynn Tech in 2006, they won the coveted Rookie All-Star Award at the Boston Regional Competition, something they now hope to achieve with the Whittier students. Beaton also founded a team at Nashoba Tech that won the 2011 Boston Regional Rookie All-Star award.

“We still have a lot to do,” said Beaton, adding he was not surprised at the number of students who have committed to the project. “It’s right up their alley.”

The philosophy of the FIRST Program, founded by entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, is to increase students’ interest in science and technology. A not-for-profit public charity based in Manchester, N.H., FIRST provides high school and college students an opportunity to participate in real-world, time-sensitive technical challenges that mimic situations which occur in the typical engineering environment. More than 4,900 teams have been formed around the world since the program’s first games in 1992.

Making the robot work

Sponsored by NASA, which donated $6,000 to the project

$1,000 donated by BAE Systems in Nashua and the same amount from Raytheon Company

Whittier students meet daily after school and on Saturdays to fine tune it