Mind games: Cedar Falls High School robotics team circuits their way to China

Mind games: Cedar Falls High School robotics team circuits their way to China

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CEDAR FALLS | As the whirring and buzzing of robots echo within an old building at Cedar Falls Industrial Park, the cheers and banter of the machines’ inventors encourage a playful scrimmage between "bots" and teammates.

Those inventors are students of Cedar Falls High School and members of the “525 Swartdogs,” the school’s robotics team. Students and mentors met last Thursday night to discuss the group’s newest venture: a trip to China.

Kenton Swartley, physics teacher at Cedar Falls High School and robotics team leader, founded the group in 1999 when a FIRST robotics team in Iowa City sent him a tape in aims of recruiting more people.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) holds an international robotics competition annually for high school students. The Cedar Falls team leave Saturday for a week in China for the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“It’s a positive, uplifting group of students working together,” Swartley said.

A coincidental encounter with YaMing Yue, president of a Chinese education company, at the 2011 world championships created a partnership between Cedar Falls High School and Experimental School No. 2 in Shenzhen, China.  

Eight Chinese teams competed last year, but the logistics of traveling complicates things, especially when it comes to transporting robots and several students overseas. Before hosting a regional event in China, FIRST requires the formation of at least 15 local teams with experienced volunteers to run the event.

The China Robotics Challenge, hosted by the China Urban Youth Robotics Alliance, will simulate a real regional event. The Swartdogs will help by participating in a series of friendly scrimmages in order to reenact traditional competition while teaching students and volunteers along the way.

Swartley said providing Chinese students with the unique opportunity will help them go beyond the traditional learning system often implemented in China. His own students have found career inspiration just from being a part of the club.

In 2011, 12 team members out of 13 graduating seniors chose to pursue a science or engineering major in college.

Collin McIntyre, 18, recently graduated, is planning to study computer engineering at Iowa State University in Ames.

“It wasn’t anything I thought I’d end up majoring in,” he said.

MyIntyre joined the mechanical team as a sophomore and moved on to programming as a junior.

“The payback for us is that we get them excited about a career choice,” said Neil Kruempel, a retired software developer and team programming mentor for nine years. 

Eight students, four recent graduates and 13 adults will assist the 11 new Chinese teams with the scrimmage, mechanical problems and strategy regarding the robots, training other volunteers and setup of the arena.

The Swartdogs also are primarily responsible for planning about 15 hours of educational seminars on topics like team structure, building of parts, pneumatics and more.

“It’s going to give them an introduction to what they need to know to get started,” said Ryan Holzapfel, four-year team member.

While competitions like this teach students how to apply their technical skills and knowledge, they learn more than how to build a robot.

Swartley emphasizes “gracious professionalism,” a core value of FIRST that encourages high-quality work while respecting and cooperating with competitors.

“What makes FIRST special for a lot of us is that they focus more on taking us to a higher level rather than just winning,” said Jason Cheng, who is entering his third year on the team.

The Swartdogs have already shipped their robot, “Flick,” for use during practice scrimmages.

The entire trip is budgeted for $45,000. The team is hoping to raise an additional $5,000. Anyone interested in making a donation should contact Swartley at kenton.swartley@cfschools.org

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