Throwing flying discs into targets seems like all fun and games.
But building robots that can do the throwing is part of a more serious endeavor: preparing students for science and technology careers.
Both the fun and serious will be on display Nov. 2, when the Sonoran Science Academy hosts the “Tucson Tussle,” a robotics competition that will feature 12 teams of local high school students.
The Tussle will be Tucson’s first robotics competition using a regulation field from FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit group founded by famed inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people.
Each year, FIRST Robotics high school teams are tasked with building robots that perform specific tasks — last year, it was flipping Frisbees — over a regulation course.
The annual contest starts in January, when teams first learn their challenge and have just 45 days to build their machines before regional competitions leading up to a regional tournament and world championships in April.
The Tussle is an “off-season” local event that invites local FIRST teams to use their robots from the previous season. It’s an offshoot of Robolympics, an event that Sonoran Science Academy has held for seven years, typically with four teams.
The Tucson Tussle will have a dozen teams, said Fiona Hanlon, coordinator of the Tucson Tussle and adviser to Sonoran Science Academy’s Team CRUSH (Creating Robots Under Server Heat) robotics squad.
“This is actually letting the teams play the game they built the robots for,” said Hanlon, a 2012 Sonoran Science Academy graduate and former CRUSH team member who is now studying business marketing at the University of Arizona.
The Arizona regional FIRST Robotics Competition has been held the past several years at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
Sonoran Science Academy was the first, and perhaps the most successful, Tucson-area school to participate in FIRST robotics competitions, said Robert Hobbins, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Sonoran Schools, which runs Sonoran Science Academy and seven other schools in Tucson and the Phoenix area.
Hobbins credits the school’s program to Bill Bennett, a retired IBM engineer who taught physics at Sonoran Science Academy before recently retiring from teaching.
Hanlon said Bennett got her involved in the FIRST competition, which includes awards for community outreach and involvement in addition to awards for winning the field game.
Since joining the FIRST fray in 2002, the charter school has fielded several successful teams at the high school level First Robotics Competition, and at middle school levels, where teams use Lego robot kits.
Team CRUSH made it to the world championships for the last two years by winning the “Engineering Inspiration” award for collaboration with the community.
The three-day high school FIRST competitions aren’t cheap — entry to the regional tournaments costs $5,000 per team for one regional ($4,000 to compete in a second state regional) and robot build costs are limited to $4,000, including in-kind donations.
Hanlon figures her team will need to raise about $17,000 for this season to compete in two regionals — besides Arizona, probably Colorado — including travel and hotel.
Team CRUSH’s main sponsors this year are industrial fabricator CAID Industries, IBM Corp., M3 Engineering and Hanlon Engineering. Raytheon, NASA and even J.C. Penney have supported the team in the past. Most have provided team mentors, as well as money and materials.
Besides its donations, CAID’s mentorship has been invaluable, said Adam Jesionoka, a 15-year-old sophomore Team CRUSH member.
“It’s awesome to have them come down and show us these advanced technologies,” said Jesionoka, who plans to study aerospace or robotics engineering in college.
The robotics teams teach students valuable lessons about various mechanical and electronic systems, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving, said Joe Reynolds, a Sonoran Science Academy grad and former Team CRUSH member who now mentors the team.
“As you’re developing solutions, all kinds of secondary problems come up,” said Reynolds, who attends Pima Community College while working part time as an intern at CAID. “The kids have to think very quickly — sometimes we have 15 minutes to fix things between challenges.”
David Rego, vice president of engineering at CAID’s relatively new industrial-automation division, said Reynolds’ robotics and team experience serves him well in his role as an intern application engineer.
“He does an amazing job and uses his experience with the robotics team every day here,” Rego said. “The discipline they have is directly applied to what we do in business.” Reynolds, 23, plans to attend the University of Arizona to study mechanical engineering.
Besides Team CRUSH, other local teams registered to compete in the Tucson Tussle are Boxerbots, from Vail Academy and High School; Bit Buckets, a community team from around Tucson; and Optimal Robotics, Palo Verde High School.