Robot-building high-schoolers headed to national competition
“The Beast” floats momentarily, suspended in the water by a labyrinthine network of white PVC pipe. Then, with a sucking sound, it descends in an eruption of foam to traverse the underwater floor and complete one of three technically challenging missions.
This box-shaped, roughly two-foot-square device is more formally known as a “Remote Operational Vehicle,” or ROV, and is designed to simulate missions such as the undersea capping of an oil well or reconnecting a communication link in outer space. Its movement is monitored via television monitor, and two joysticks control its hydraulic thrusters.
More impressive than its maneuvers in the swimming pool in Paradise’s Beyond Fitness workout center is the fact that this particular underwater robot recently won the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center and Marine Technology Society (MTS) fourth-annual ROV Competition in Monterey and is heading off to Houston, Texas, home of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to go for the really big prize—a national win.
Its creators? Four high-school students from Paradise.
The story of The Beast is an underdog story of the determination and effort of two teachers, four students and the combined resources of a community rising above other schools with far more resources and proximity to the ocean.
Chris Jensen, along with fellow science teacher Kim Jones of Paradise High School, oversaw the work of The Beast’s crew. With a deep voice that matches his commanding posture and drill-sergeant physicality, Jensen has a wry sense of humor that often pops out unexpectedly—a combination that partly accounts for his success with high-school students. Jensen describes how it all began.
“I first got word of the competition from [PHS science and math teacher] Robert Kuintzle,” he explains. “He had been asked by Sam Dresser of the Paradise Town Council to head up the field trip and for some reason asked me to do it instead.” Jensen affects a look of mock mental concentration. “My thoughts were: ‘Trip to Monterey, at the Hilton, paid for, straight-A kids … OK.'”
This field trip was designed to introduce schools, such as Paradise High School, to a regional competition held at the MATE Center in Monterey every year that is underwritten by a large grant through the University of Hawaii aimed at getting inland teachers and students involved in marine science.
The contest in 2004 was composed only of local, coastal schools, some of which had entire curricula centered on the building of ROVs. These schools sent teams of students and their student-built robots to the center’s large pool to carry out underwater “missions,” which involved everything from picking up and transporting items to maneuvering through small spaces. The robots could be monitored only via television in a “control shack,” where live feed from a camera mounted on the robot provided a grainy and two-dimensional view.
Points were awarded for ability to complete the task as well as overall speed. In addition, each team had to make an oral presentation to defend its engineering expertise.
Eighteen students accompanied Jensen and Jones on the introductory trip. Jones, who has flowing light-brown hair and a megawatt smile, had her own reasons for checking it out. “I have a degree in marine bio from Humboldt State University in 1996, so being land-locked in the mountains has made me miss my schooling. I got involved so I could apply some specific aspects of my degree and get kids interested in ocean conservation, early. And to have a great time doing something marine related, fun and educational with a great bunch of kids.”
One of those kids was Ryan Randar, a sophomore at the time. Tall and soft-spoken, he admits some hesitation about making the visit. “I didn’t know anyone who was going, except for one person, and I was like, should I go? Should I not go?” His parents encouraged him to give it a try. “When we got down there, it was real interesting—all the teamwork that was going on, and just that you could actually build something like [an ROV] in a few months.”
This field trip achieved its mission to excite newbie schools to the possibilities of competing. Randar immediately identified himself as someone who could build such a robot. “I did think I could do that, because I like tinkering with things and I race RC [remote-controlled] cars as a hobby, and I’m always working on them.”
As a result of the initial trip and the kids’ interest level, Jensen and Jones were able to attend a follow-up ROV training session for schools interested in competing in the next year’s contest. “We took notes and built our own ROVs,” recalls Jensen, “and brought back just enough to feel confident to turn some kids loose on their own projects.”
And so, last fall, an ROV club was born at PHS, with an initial roster of over three-dozen kids. It eventually thinned to a core group of 11, of whom four boys would band together to find ultimate success with the creation of The Beast.
Brent Farris, co-creator of the winning ’bot (along with twin brother Zach Farris and friends Ryan Randar and Richard McCurty), divulged that time was the biggest challenge at the outset. Between work, sports and music, the four weren’t able to find dates when they all could meet.
Brent, an athletic brunet with a calm and confident demeanor, describes their solution. “When we realized that we were getting nowhere, we made some due dates and had some deadlines for when we needed to have things done.” Their schedules began to clear up gradually, and they found a way to meet almost every day for the three months leading up to the competition.
Zach Farris admits to some nervousness about the complexity of the task at the beginning. “I didn’t know how much was involved. There were so many specifications and rules; it caught me off guard at first.” There are six pages of such requirements, to be exact, that include terminology such as “maximum surface supplied power,” “depth rating” and “demobilization period.”
But, as did his his teammates, Farris had a background rich in creative problem solving. “I’ve always had an interest in engineering—working on RC cars, messing around with electronics, tinkering with stuff.”
“I was surprised how simple our ROV was in comparison to everyone else’s,” recalls Randar of the design. But this may have been why they were so successful. “There was less to go wrong on ours, and ours was pretty straightforward. It did its job, just like it was supposed to.” In fact, their robot cost only $129 to produce, a pittance compared to competing robots with price tags closer to $1,000.
“I think [we won] because our design was pretty simple,” agrees Zach. “Me, Brent, Ryan, and Richard pretty much have the same thoughts, and we work together real well. If one of us had an idea, we all went along with it because we were pretty much thinking the same thing. … If something did go wrong [at the competition], we didn’t bite each other’s heads off.”
“I am really proud of all the kids that participated in Monterey,” beams Jensen. “For our winning team it really came down to the amount of time they spent practicing in the pool after school and on weekends.” Time, it should be mentioned, that was always voluntarily shared by the two teachers. “It is really a Cinderella story for The Beast and its crew. It is our first time competing, and we went up against schools with prior experience and with more resources.”
Jones, too, felt all the time involved was worthwhile. “I got out of it the self-satisfaction of bringing something really great to PHS and the kids that go there. These types of educational opportunities are rarely available to high-school kids, especially those not on the coast with copious amounts of marine resources.”
This week, the four students and their two teachers will be traveling to Houston, Texas, to take part in the national competition. McCurty feels fairly confident about their chances. “I think we have a shot, because at the state competition we were the fastest team in completing our tasks.”
Randar is a bit more wary. “Right now I am a little nervous.” His mom adds that he’s been working until almost midnight every night, due to modifications they’ve made in the design. “We’ve been changing things. … I work on it quite a bit.”
Zach Farris admits to being particularly apprehensive about the judges, as they include astronauts and engineers for NASA. He is optimistic, however, about how the experience may help him down the line. “I have a feeling this will probably help us out with our future, [as] there will be colleges at the competition, and people from different careers looking at us.”
Regardless of the outcome, Kim Jones and Chris Jensen may have found a new way to get kids interested in science for the long term, through the establishment of a Marine Science elective course at PHS in the coming years.
Randar has high praise for the two teachers who made this experience possible. “They’re just a blessing because they’re really, really good at what they do.”