Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

By Vicky Dorvee

Up-A-Creeks Robotics makes off with regional awards


March 24, 2018

Photo by Vicky Dorvee NHS junior Drew Arnold said, “I really love engineering, but the people are the reason I stay.“ Here he works in the machine shop of Up-A-Creek Robotics, preparing a piece of equipment to create a component for their robot.

Local robotics Team 1619, based in Longmont, earned a significant honor this month at the Hub City Regional Competition in Lubbock, Texas - the Regional Chairman’s Award. Along with their alliance teams, the team also took first place out of 41 teams at the same event.

Since the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) team was formed in 2004, and dubbed Up-A-Creek Robotics, membership and facilities have dramatically improved. Its beginnings were humble, with the first meeting in a technology classroom at Silver Creek High School. The team moved its resources to the school district’s Career Development Center on Sunset Street in 2007, but they were still constrained by space and the hours they were permitted to be on the premises.

A year and a half ago the team relocated to its present-day spacious site donated by scientists, Terry and Cathy Olkin, who live in Niwot. Their older son Jake was a team member before heading to college, and their son Zach is presently on the team.

“My passion is really about the kids and the robotics,” Terry Olkin said. “The team was getting more serious and we kind of outgrew the old space. They were becoming more world class and moving here gave us the ability to sponsor all the younger teams too, like Lego League. We went from sponsoring about 40 kids a year to 150 kids. Other teams have a variety of resources. They run from teams in one classroom to NASA-based teams.”

The new 6,000 square foot facility on South Sherman Street makes room for a software classroom brimming with computers and monitors, a well-appointed machine shop, a fabrication room packed with rolling tool cabinets, a variety of working spaces and offices, and a full-size “practice field” to simulate an actual competition arena.

Formed to fall under the ranks of the FIRST program, an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, founded by the world-famous inventor Dean Kamen, Team 1619 upholds this international group’s mission: ”To inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

On any given weekday (and nights and weekends), the building buzzes with the energy of elementary school to high school kids, along with a cache of their 25 volunteer mentors. Blue award banners from FIRST cover most of the back wall of the main room. They’ve won every Colorado regional event since 2015 and members incorporate their team T-shirts into their everyday wardrobe.

It’s not uncommon, during the competition season, for the high school students to spend upwards of 40 hours per week working at the facility, in addition to their full class schedule and engaging in other extracurricular activities. This is a rightfully proud and confident group.

Sponsorship money and a pool of mentors come from Seagate, Google, Ball Aerospace, Boeing and Xilinx as well as others. SVVSD donates $20,000 per year to the $180,000 annual budget. Forty percent of the participating students come from Niwot High School (NHS).

NHS computer science and engineering teacher Teresa Ewing has mentored the team for 12 years. Her deep knowledge of the program, the technical skills needed, and attention to each student makes her involvement invaluable.

Some mentors come to Up-A-Creek by way of their children. Such was the case for Tom Glenn, an engineer at Ball Aerospace. He works with the students primarily in the machine area, teaching them how to use lathes and CNC machines.

Kassi Butler, NHS alum and former Team 1619 member, earned a mechanical engineering degree from CU. After an internship at FIRST RF, a Boulder antennae and radio frequency firm, she was hired by the company. Because of her extensive hands-on experience at Up-A-Creek, her assumed junior status translated into more practical experience than the average new employee and that was a huge asset to her employer. Butler is also back in Team 1619’s ranks, this time as a mentor, and she’s brought her boss onboard too.

Terry Olkin is frequently on hand to assist team members. His business, Left Hand Robotics, often hires interns from the program. The start-up company recently introduced the SnowBot Pro, a remotely controlled self-driven snow plow.

Things really get moving during what is called “build season” (January through April) after the team is presented with their annual challenge from FIRST headquarters. The competitive team project is to create a robot that will accomplish specific tasks (which are different each year) for which they will earn points. The process sets in motion a simulated high pressure engineering environment where time and resources are limited.

This year’s challenge involves a suspended teeter totter with boxed-end compartments that await the delivery of yellow cubes. For added drama, the robot is lifted off the ground to demonstrate the team’s advanced abilities. The robot spins, rolls, and scoops up a cube from the pile. It twists around, travels toward the teeter totter and extends its reach to deposit a cube on the team’s designated side. To see it in action, check out Youtube video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3w4hPvwMqI

For each year’s competition, every team’s robot has to be within certain weight and size limits and each team gets the same electronics and motors to use. Then the creativity and technical skills of each team are put to the test.

Rivaling the excitement of a sporting event, thousands of people fill the stands to watch competitions.

NHS sophomore, Esther Xu said, “Competitions are awesome! There’s a lot going on at once and the energy level is pretty crazy.”

“The most exciting match at Hub City was definitely the last match in our finals rounds.” NHS senior, Avi Moskoff said. “Our autonomous routine was misconfigured and instead of turning right, turned left, crashed into a wall and dumped a cube outside the field. We suddenly didn't have our usual advantage and were tied neck and neck through the whole match. The final winning margin was only three points - one of the closest matches nationwide this season!”

Photo by Jason Shin Team 1619, students and mentors, pose after their win at the Hub City Regional Competition in Lubbock, TX.

Not only did the team win for their robot’s excellent performance, but it also won the highly sought-after Chairman’s Award. FIRST’s website reads, “The Chairman’s Award is the most prestigious award at FIRST, it honors the team that best represents a model for the other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.”

Upcoming competitions for the team are the FIRST Colorado Regionals, Saturday, March 24, on the University of Denver’s campus, Magnus Arena. The public is invited to attend free of charge. April 18-21 the team will head to the FIRST Championship in Houston, TX where over 1,400 teams compete.

Summer camps for kids from kindergarten through grade 12 will be starting in June. The team’s Lego League creates its own smaller versions of robots while the older kids work on everything from learning software to lathing.

For more information on Up-A-Creek Robotics visit http://www.team1619.org or write to finance@team1619.org.


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