CONCORD — Building a robot that can pick up balls and drop them over a short wall takes knowledge, skill and perseverance.

"We come up with designs, review them, find flaws maybe, then build them," said 17-year-old Matt Johnson, a student in the robotics class at Concord High School.

Teens in the class designed, built and manipulated robots that competed last month against about 100 other student inventions at the 2010 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship in Dallas. Although the Concord teens didn't win the overall competition, they came home with an education award recognizing the school for its rigorous curriculum, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"Three sets of judges were looking for the depth of the program," said teacher Michael Smidebush, who worked as an engineer for 25 years before becoming an educator. "They were looking at what kinds of cross-curricular subjects are studied. I think they liked the fact that we're working on underwater technology. We have one test to measure thrust of a propeller under water."

Some teams at the competition came from clubs that mainly focus on building robots that can accomplish the challenge, which changes each year, he said. This year, robots were required to scoop up small balls and plunk them on the opponent's side of a rectangular area.


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Now that the Concord students are back in school, they are working on a new project unrelated to the competition: building robots than can maneuver through a simulated underwater cavern and retrieve an object. The teens are excited about the challenge and methodical in their strategies.

"We're calculating buoyancy and thrust," said Nick Bublitz, 18. "It won't be, 'Build it and see if it works.' It's, 'This will work.' It's more of an industry approach instead of trial and error."

Smidebush, who started the class two years ago, said he has seen tremendous growth in his students' abilities.

"It definitely shows in their designs," Smidebush said. "They're more robust and sophisticated."

Concord High is the only school in the Mt. Diablo district with a robotics class, although Northgate High has an extracurricular robotics club, which also sent students to the Vex competition, Smidebush said.

The Concord High students said they feel lucky to be immersed in a strong curriculum that is preparing them for college and careers in competitive science and technology. The robotics class is funded by the Contra Costa County Office of Education's Regional Occupational Program, which helps protect it against district budget cuts.

"Because of this class, I've found I love to program," said David Lambertson, 18, who plans to study computer programming at Brigham Young University next year.

Shelby Lope, also 18, recently got a part-time job at the Moose Metal fabrication shop in Concord, where he is learning to program robots that weld. Rick Sobilo, who owns the shop and hired Shelby, said his daughter is also in the robotics class.

"It gets kids interested in something that's really cutting-edge," he said. "These kids have tangible, intellectual skills that they can use to go forward and develop careers. It teaches kids to conceptualize ideas and to carry them through."

Concord High graduate Josh Filstrup, who took robotics last year, is now studying engineering at San Jose State University and working to get a robotics club going there, said his mother, Pam Filstrup, of Concord.

"It was a wonderful program," she said. "It was just really neat to see the kids build this robot out of nothing and then go on and compete."

Read Theresa Harrington's education blog, On Assignment, at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

ONLINE
  • Watch a video of Concord High students and their robots at www.contracostatimes.com.
  • More information about the Vex Robotics competition is available at www.vexrobotics.com.