Portland’s first student robotics team competes at Regionals

Defying the odds: See how this team of students, primarily attending Franklin High School, didn’t fold when their school kicked ’em to the curb at the start of the school year. You’ll find out who gave them a new home in the Lents Neighborhood, and get a look at this fascinating competition …

Robot mechanic Chase Forman and driver Hadrian Carlsen make last minute modifications to the Mahr’s Metal Beavers robot, extending the length of its grippers.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
After being kicked out, as a club, from Franklin High School – their home for many years – where they had been the Portland area’s original nationally-sanctioned student robotics club – it looked like Mahr’s Metal Beavers might not be able to compete in the regional FIRST Robotics competition.

But, the coaches, mentors – and most of all, the students of “FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1432”, their club’s official designation – beat the odds stacked against them, when they proudly rolled their metallic on the playing arena on March 25, the first day of FIRST Autodesk Oregon Regional competition in Memorial Coliseum.

Instead of building their remote-controlled robot in Franklin High’s spacious-but-disused auto shop, as they used to do, the students created, built, and tested their robot 32 blocks east – a long bus ride from their school – in the basement of Ivanhoe Lodge – Knights of Pythias, 5400 SE 84th & Insley, in the Lents neighborhood.

Mahr’s Metal Beavers rolls their robot out of the pit area. At the right rear is outer East Portland’s Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith, admiring their machine.

During the Holiday season, FIRST headquarters reveals to all competing teams the tasks the robots are to perform, which parts will be supplied, and how the game – played on a basketball-sized field – is scored. Each high school’s team has just six weeks to build their robot to exacting specifications.

“This is the eighth season for us,” said Mahr’s Metal Beavers mentor Alan LohKamp, as we stood by the club’s pit at the competition. “We’re the oldest team in the city. It’s a very different challenge this year, changing locations an all. And, this year’s build was also unique, with the addition of trying to deploy a ‘mini-bot’ off the main robot.”

Even though their team’s funding was held up by the fracas with Franklin High, the team found time to mentor a rookie FRC team in Gresham – and host a team from Mexico – and both those teams won the opportunity to compete at the World Championship. “They say we had something to do with their success,” modestly admitted Rebecca LohKamp.

Kobel Weaver Li and Chase Forman position their robot on the playing field, before one of their matches begins.

Students scurried around, working on their robot in the pit area. “It was exciting when we discovered that the arm on our main robot was too short,” remarked club member and robot driver Hadrian Carlsen. “In a few moments the ‘hand’ went through an evolution, so it could touch the floor, and then finally we added foam for a better grasp.”

When it was time to compete, the team rolled the robot out to the playing field, and vied against six other teams – all trying to pick up oddly-shaped “inner tube” pool toys, and place them on high pegs on poles.

With Gabe Guodace in the coach position, Case Forman and Hadrian Carlsen drive and operate the Mahr’s Metal Beavers robot during a match.

FIRST Pacific NW Regional Director Debra Mumm-Hill smiled as she watched Mahr’s Metal Beavers operate their robot.

“They’re troupers,” Mumm-Hill told us. “They are some of the most under-served students we have in our program, yet they have the biggest hearts that you can imagine. They rolled out the red carpet for the 42-member Mexico team. They came down to Salem, inviting every member of the Oregon House and Senate to this event, with their robot handing out the VIP invitations.”

Mumm-Hill added that she was truly pleased that the club didn’t disband, and persevered, making it to the competition. “This is a team made up of amazing people, mentors and students, who don’t do it for the glory. They’re doing it for all the right reasons. They’re always reaching out, and making sure that people know about FIRST.”

The Mahr’s Metal Beavers robot picks up an inflatable tube, hoping to score. The drivers are located behind the plex shield.

Although they didn’t make it into the finals, these Franklin High School students still enjoyed the two-day event.

After the competition, Carlsen said about participating in the robotics club, “I absolutely loved being able to create an idea, and then from that, to learn how to use the tools at hand to make that idea come to fruition.

“When I made the first prototype of the claw used to pick up the inner-tubes, and then as I watched it struggle to life, I could not stop smiling.  Something that started as a simple idea in my mind, was in my hands, and doing exactly as I constructed it to do.”
Although their team is now small – they lost about half of their club members when the club was locked out of Franklin High school – Carlsen had high praise for the program. “I had an amazing experience, and I thank FIRST for creating this program – but most of all, I thank my mentors, who put a tremendous amount of hours in teaching us new skills and helping us develop our ideas.”

With all the water toys strewn about making it look like a pool party gone wild, another competition is underway at the FIRST Autodesk Oregon Regional competition in Memorial Coliseum

Mentor Rebecca LohKamp said, “The kids are excited and making plans on how to make next year better. Thanks to the S.E. Portland Rotary Club for being our fiscal sponsor, and the Knights of Pythias Ivanhoe Lodge # 1 for giving us a place to meet! We continue on.”

To help rebuild the club, LohKamp said, they are arranging middle-school visits to talk about FIRST, and to show off their robot. They are seeking additional sponsors and mentors. “We didn’t win this year, but we didn’t expect to. We have high hopes for next year.”

For more information, or to donate, visit their website: CLICK HERE to open their homepage – or see their exhibit at the Multnomah County Fair in May.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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