Sonja Marcus, Daniel Shorr, Hank Melse and Sig Johnson are local high school students with an unusual hobby. They design, program and engineer robots for fun.
Through a Woodinville-based organization called Swerve Robotics, students from Woodinville, Bothell, Inglemoor and some home school groups compete in robotics competitions put on by FIRST, a nationwide program dedicated to engaging young people in science, math and technology.
“A year ago I wouldn’t be able to see myself actually doing this,” said Marcus, a junior at Woodinville High School and a relative newbie to Swerve. “I didn’t really think that I could be an engineer.”
This March, Melse and Johnson's team, 8923, is taking their robot to the FIRST Tech Challenge West Super-Regional Championship in Tacoma. The tournament competitors from thirteen different states, and the top placers move on to the World Championships.
8923 advanced to the West Super-REgional after being named as the runner-up for the FIRST Inspire Award, given out to th groups who excel in all areas of judging criteria and present themselves as role models for other teams.
Marcus and Shorr's team, 417, has already been offered a spot at the World Championships after the team was named the winner of an Inspire Award in Victoria, British Columbia.
At each of this year's FIRST Tech Challenge competitions, each team's robot must compete in a two-and-a-half-minute modified game of basketball involving wiffle balls and four-foot hoops. Teams earn bonus points if their robots can lift an exercise ball into the air or place it on top of one of the hoops.
For the first 30 seconds of the game, the robots play autonomously in order to display each team’s programming skills. For the remaining two minutes, students control the robots using remotes.
Team 417’s robot is named Kareem; Team 8923’s, The Dankinator.
The students said they expect to do well at the Super-Regional. Making it this far already puts them at least in the top seven percent of teams worldwide, said Shorr.
Currently both Swerve teams are working to fix any problems that arose at the previous state championships. “We had the chance to see exactly how our robots performed in a competition setting,” said Melse. “We could see everything that went wrong and everything that went well.”
Adult mentors are present to assist, but the students at Swerve do all the physical and mental labor. They meet for up to four hours two to three times per week.
“We’ve easily spent hundreds of hours on these robots,” Marcus said.
The time commitment isn’t a deterrent, though. For these students, this is a precious opportunity.
Daniel Shorr, a senior at Woodinville High School, grew up in Beijing where he didn’t have access to a program like Swerve.
“I always dreamed of being a scientist without really knowing what that meant,” he said. “I still remember the first day I came to the shop and seeing all those tools.”
Shorr described it as a scene out of a movie: band saws, drill presses and other equipment, all intended for teenagers to use to build new and innovative things. He’s been a member of Swerve for almost five years.
Melse and Johnson are both seniors at Bothell High School. They started out in robotics in middle school.
“When I was ten I got one of those Lego robots and I kind of got obsessed from there on,” Johnson said.
Aside from the technical aspects of robotics, the Swerve teams also focus heavily on outreach. They put on local displays at places like the Woodinville Library and at events such as Seafair and BrickCon.
“We love sharing STEM with the community,” Marcus said.
Swerve’s outreach doesn’t stop at the local level. After one of the group’s mentors, Heidi Lovett, visited Botswana, she and her students decided to launch a project to bring robotics and STEM education (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math) to the region.
“These kids have had no real exposure to STEM,” Shorr said. The project will be sustainable, and will teach educators in Ramotswa, Botswana a robotics curriculum using Lego. Swerve’s teams will test their curriculum in local elementary schools before taking it to Botswana.
As for the students in Botswana, the primary objective isn’t just that a few might become scientists, but that many of them will pursue higher education in a variety of fields.
To donate to the cause, visit www.firstwa.org/How-To-Help and designate the donation to “Swerve Robotics for Botswana.”
For those interested in joining Swerve, there are waiting lists in place. More information can be found at swerverobotics.org.
Shorr also suggested that interested young people look into the different opportunities offered by FIRST, available at firstinspires.org. “We really want to encourage people to start teams,” he said. “This program has really changed my life.”