Adam Rowley is a lawyer. Joshua Peterson is a computer programmer. Trent Duke is an engineer. Pretty good, considering they haven’t even graduated from high school.
The boys are all members of the 4-H San Juan Robotics Team, a group that builds robots and competes with them with other high school students from around the world.
Miriam Peterson, the volunteer coach of the team, said her interest in robotics was first pricked when she and her son Joshua took a basic robotics class from USU. They instantly took to the hobby, and started ordering parts and watching videos so they could build on their own.
Last year, Peterson took a big step and created a competitive team of six middle to high school aged boys. Even though the program is new, Peterson said the team is thriving.
“The parents seem to want this robotics education,” she said. “There is a high demand.”
The team placed first in their Regional VEX robotics competition, which allowed them to travel to Florida last week to compete with more than 1,000 middle and high schools from around the country.
VEX is a robotic design system and company that sponsors the largest student robotics competition in the world.
In order to earn funding to travel and build robots, Peterson is working to offer classes in Lego robotics. She said parents are often shocked that their children don’t have opportunities like this more often. Peterson said the skills her son Joshua has collected from designing robots will carry into any field he chooses.
“Just the knowledge he’s gained from this will get him far in the world of business,” Peterson said.
VEX runs both high school and college chapters. Last year, USU’s robotics group placed fifth internationally and first nationally at the worldwide VEX Competition.
Robotics was one of the main reasons Ph.D student Trevor Robinson came to USU. Robinson has been working with robots for more than 10 years and described the world competition as a sporting event, only with robots instead of humans.
Robinson said every VEX competition year has a new theme. This year, the goal is to get the robots to pick up a plastic, doughnut-shaped ring and lift it over a post. The first minute is called the autonomous round, where the robot must be programmed to lift the ring itself.
He said the second round is a minute and a 20 seconds where the robots can be controlled by the teams through a remote. The teams get bonus points if the robot can climb a ladder in the middle of the field. The robots cannot be more than 18 inches on each side, adding to the challenge.
Bryan Helm, a senior in education engineering, called the program “a lot of work, but a lot of fun.”
Helm, who has been working on the team for three years, said they compete with colleges from Mexico to China and everywhere in between. Helm also mentors a high school team, which he said is rewarding in a different way than being on a college team.
“It’s really fun to teach kids and be their mentor,” he said.
The high school team Helm coaches recently took second place in their region, which allowed them to travel to the world competition. While the high school teams must place in regional competitions to move ahead, college teams do not not have to compete regionally, Helm said.
The process of building a robot is a long road that starts with brainstorming, said Thomas Fisher, a team member and sophomore in mechanical engineering. Before drawing up plans for a robot, the team had to figure out funding issues. The money to build the robot comes from many sources such as the college’s dean, ASUSU and NASA.
After planning, the team must create a design specifically tailored to the task the robot needs to complete, Fisher said. Plans are drawn out while the team considers every possible bug that could prevent the robot from doing its task. After building the robot from the ground up, the team must test it in competition-like settings and make sure the kinks are fixed.
A robotics program embodies USU well, Fisher said.
“It really represents us well, it shows we’re innovative,” he said. “We’ve up there in the top of the game. This club represents Utah States finest innovation because we’re competing against the world.”
Fisher said when he started building robots, all of his knowledge from the classroom such as the math and science suddenly became applicable to his life.
“This makes the classes worth it,” he said. “You realize ‘Oh, that’s why I need to know vector calculus.'”
Despite the 2 a.m. studying in the engineering building, Fisher said the program has brought his education full circle.
“This is engineering at it’s finest,” he said. “This is the hands on the real world application.”