Cowboy Engineering
by Rebecca S. Mullen, Free Press Correspondent

Last year, the students from tiny Plateau Valley High School went up against the big boys of NASA and General Motors — and they won.

The robotics competitive team at the school, which draws from more than a third of the entire student body, is preparing for their fourth competition, and this year, they’ve been invited to take their robot and entrepreneurial spirit to San Diego.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is an international competition founded by inventor Dean Kamen.

Kamen is famous for medical contributions that include a wheelchair that walks up stairs and the stylish Segway, a mechanized scooter that runs on gyroscopes. Kamen founded the competition because he was concerned the USA was falling behind in international engineering technology.

While there are obvious benefits to exposing students to the hard sciences of electrical and mechanical engineering, teachers Steve Langley and Dory Eddy believe the largest benefit to kids is a whole lot bigger. Participation in the competition offers students a central goal to rally around just like a football team with their eyes on state competition.

In doing so, they’re rounding out their core education.

In order to pull off a robot similar to last year’s model, one that could shoot hoops like a star basketball player, there are peripheral tasks to be accomplished. All the team players wear matching T-shirts to the competition, so there is a group that designs a logo to represent the team. Historians keep track of the day-to-day progress monitoring successes and failures while learning to tell the story of a team’s journey. The need for fundraising fosters students’ awareness of a larger community and develops skills of promotion and speaking.

“We represent cowboy engineering at its finest,” said teacher Steve Langley of his Plateau Valley Cowboys, whose team has used a coffee can and bailing wire to substitute for the funding that teams sponsored by Ford Motor Car Company might have. Competing against teams that have NASA engineers and $60,000 budgets, Plateau Valley may not turn out the prettiest robot, but they’ve brought home a trophy each of the three years they’ve attended.

Their rookie year they won the award for outstanding team organization, an award that typically goes to teams who know the ropes.

Ernie Young, a process engineer at Canyon Electronic and Cables, has worked with the team helping students to learn the computer programming necessary to make their robot run with autonomy.

“They’d be in the heat of competition cheering on their worst rival,” Young said, explaining the team’s 2005 Johnson and Johnson award for outstanding sportsmanship.

Each year, robotics teams have a window of six weeks to build a robot that will compete in a game at their regional conference. This year, Plateau Valley students are building a robot that can pick up an inflatable swimming pool tube, carry it yards down the playing field and then hang it up on a spidery looking coat rack. For the first 15 seconds of the competition, their robot must work on its own, without even the advantage of a remote control.

Dirk Terpstra, a senior, has been programming robots for several years . With Young’s tutelage, Terpstra became adept enough to serve his team’s competitive hunger with pit-time adjustments during last year’s event.

Terpstra was the only technician among 40 teams to use the 15-minute break between rounds to reprogram a robot. As a result, Plateau Valley foiled the robot who’d been dominating play.

Team fundraiser Justin Bartosh has been cold calling Fortune 500 companies. Bartosh, who spent plenty of years at big schools, can name everyone in his high school.

“It took coming to this itty bitty school with 97 kids for me to find robotics and keep me off the ineligibility list,” he said.

It is this student-directed leadership that earned Plateau Valley the invitation to San Diego. Jim Beck, the Western Regional Director, is excited by the whole package the team represents. In 2006, Plateau Valley won two awards that demonstrate the full spectrum of their team’s capacity. The venture capitalists that started Google gave them the award for entrepreneurship. DaimlerChrysler gave them the team spirit award.

Beck said that very few teams are capable of qualifying for the entrepreneur award because “it requires a team to be firing on all cylinders.” The spirit award is hard won because, with every region in the nation trying to outdo their neighbors, teenagers have a lot of glitz and glamour to make them excited.

Aside from top-notch facilities to host the events, FIRST hires professional announcers, lighting designers and event planners to make students feel they are participating in a world class event. This year, when Plateau Valley arrives in San Diego, their opening party will be hosted on board a moored aircraft carrier.

But excitement is not something the PV kids need help creating. One day, while a group of them were at the T-shirt shop, three engineers from Capco Inc., a manufacturing company across the street, happened to run into them. The students’ enthusiasm so enthralled the engineers that they took them across the street and showed the kids their huge machine facility.

An enthusiastic show-and-tell followed with kids and working scientists demonstrating robotic arms and the fine points of engineering. Steve Wood, Capco president, wrote out a check to support the team at this year’s competition.

Other community members have come forward to lend a human hand including Collbran Auto Supply, CC Enterprises and Meadow Gold Dairy.

Students are hosting a fundraiser at Powderhorn Ski Area Jan. 28 with games on the mountain. One game requires participants to ski down the mountain carrying a cup of water, another ties two buddies together with a ribbon. Johnny Carino’s is hosting a catered lunch Feb. 23 and 24 for the district basketball championship.

Makala Mumby, a senior, tells why such a huge portion of Plateau Valley’s student body participates in the robotics competition, “We’re trying to show that robotics is not just for geeks, that it’s fun and cool to be a scientist.”

If you would like to support the Plateau Valley Robotics Team, send a tax deductible donation to PV Robotics, 56600 Hwy. 330, Collbran CO 81624.