Hernando's RoboSharks Spark Creativity, Teamwork To Stand Tall In World Competition

The RoboSharks, a robotics team at Nature Coast Technical High School in Hernando County, is successfully competing globally by igniting students' interest in engineering careers at a time when too few engineers are entering the workforce to keep up with advancing technology.

Just four years after the inception of the program, the Hernando robotics team has claimed its first state title at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Florida Regional Robotics Competition in Orlando.

The nine-member, self-funded squad from Brooksville beat out 53 teams from across the country with bigger budgets and more members. Perhaps it's because these students have found something they're hopelessly passionate about and are relishing in every moment of the learning process.

Aaron Holland was brought into the engineering lab by his cousin when he was a freshman and jumped right into the world of robotics. "The first day I was up here they let me drive the robot and I thought that was the coolest thing," he says. Holland, a senior at NCT, never showed any interest in electronics before that day and concentrated on athletics instead. At first he struggled to grasp the ins and outs of a fast-paced robotics competition when he joined the team.

"Now, I actually know what's going on," Holland says. He especially enjoys sharing his knowledge of the game with his family members who've attended several competitions. "They think it's going to be boring," he says, "but it's like a basketball, football and baseball game mixed together—with robots."

While they aren't drawing the number of fans those sports events boast, they've got all the bells and whistles. Part of the $5,000 registration fee covers the construction of a robotic enthusiast's dream course -- towers, bumps, tunnels, a polycarbonate wall that encloses the field, sensors to record goals scored. It only gets bigger at the championship.

This year's FIRST event April 15-17 was held in Atlanta's Georgia Dome where NCT competed with teams from countries around the world, including Germany, Brazil and Australia. Many of the teams enjoyed sponsorships from companies like Rockwell Automation, Lego Education, NASA, Raytheon, Bayer MaterialScience and others that employ engineers. The Florida champs placed 20th out of 86 teams in one of four groupings -- the Archimedes Division.

The Super Bowl Of Robots

The actual building of the robot is a six-week process that cannot officially begin until Kickoff on January 9. On that date, the new game is revealed via live Web cast around the world and teams can finally open their starter-kits purchased through the competition.  This year's robot is constructed from a box-shaped rectangular aluminum frame welded by one of the team member's parents. The remote control can be anything from a joystick to an X-Box controller like the one the RoboSharks use. Students spend hours after school in the engineering lab -- often seven days a week until 2 a.m. -- to get the robot built on time. That's where parent volunteers like Susan Carter come in.

Carter's son, Tim, is a junior at NCT and the current team driver. "From the time he was little he wanted to be an inventor," Carter said. Naturally, Tim joined the high school's engineering track his freshman year and made participation in robotics a family affair. "My husband and I help them with the build, we get them food, make flyers and run errands," she said. "We really enjoy it -- it's an excellent program."

Other parent volunteers, like Richard Russell, no longer have a child on the team. They just enjoy lending a helping hand. Former robotics team member Emily Russell graduated from NCT two years ago and has since joined the Air Force as a hydraulic specialist. Russell says Emily was always interested in engineering, and being a part of this program strengthened her leadership skills in preparation for the Air Force.

"The students teach each other," Russell says. "From the seniors down to the freshman -- it's a teaching of the technology and the process that goes into building this thing."

Luckily, the team also has a teacher and coach in Edward Fry, who has more than 20 years of experience working for companies that design and build custom automotive assembly equipment. After moving from Pennsylvania, Fry began working at one of the Brooksville Airport Industrial Park's first businesses -- Sims Machine & Controls -- in 1986.

When Fry joined the NCT faculty on the last day of September 2009, he was introduced to the RoboSharks by its former lead mentor, April Brown. Coincidentally, there just happened to be a team meeting his first day on the job. The match couldn't have been better.

"Mr. Fry's done a very good job of running this team," team mentor Nick Anatala says. In fact, Fry was the first teacher to get the team through preliminary regional competitions and into the Top 8, according to Anatala.

Combining Strengths To Form Florida Team

Fry wasn't the only one to get them to the championship, though. Once they placed 6th in the Top 8, the RoboSharks were allowed form an alliance with other teams. By mixing their own high-scoring skills with the superior passing skills of Team Resistance from Jacksonville and the steadfast blocking of TechTigers from Coconut Creek, the three teams were a winning combination. The group's recognition of the importance of teamwork and leadership strengthening is something parents like Carter would like to see more often.

"I'd like to get other kids from the community involved," Carter says. "Any high school child is welcome whether they're home-schooled or go to a different school." The program isn't exclusive to any age either. Kindergartners have the opportunity to join a Jr. FIRST Lego League as well as three other divisions when they're older.

Ultimately, the creation of robotics programs for children will only help teams like the RoboSharks. The positive effects reach far beyond high school though. "It helps make graduating students more employable," Fry says. He likens the program to team sports. "If you look at a high school team that's a powerhouse, somewhere at the younger level there's a good program," he says. "If they get a good foundation in science and technology when they're kids, they come into high school wondering where that robotics team they've heard about since they were young is."

Matt Spencer is a senior at the University of South Florida majoring in journalism. He is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.