Rich Polak spends most of his days repairing and maintaining vacuum chambers used to test ion thrusters for NASA's deep space missions. Though his job is anything but routine, last week Polak experienced an unusual change of scenery. He spent three days in a sports arena fixing robot parts for high school students.
Polak and eight other employees of Sierra Lobo, a contractor that serves NASA's Glenn Research Center, ran the machine shop at the FIRST Buckeye Regional Robotics Competition in Cleveland.
"It was really fun to watch the kids' enthusiasm," Polak said. "I wasn't expecting to see the big cheering sections in the stands. It was almost like a football game, but with robots."
NASA co-sponsors the annual competition, which combines the exhilaration of sports with engineering challenges. The goal? To get kids excited about careers in engineering.
Fifty-eight teams of high school students from six U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Canada flocked to Cleveland State University's Wolstein Center for the Buckeye regional. They each spent six weeks building and preparing their robots to compete in a game called Rack 'N Roll.
The object of Rack 'N Roll was to score points by using the robots to pick up inflatable rings and hang them on a rack in the center of the playing field. Teams could also use their robots to block opponents from scoring.
In this fast-paced competition, unexpected mechanical problems could eliminate a team. Fortunately, the machine shop volunteers were well-equipped to help the students keep their robots in peak condition. Armed with a drill press, welder, circular saw, mill and lathe, the men made and repaired more than 300 robot parts.
"We weren't allowed to help the kids assemble their robots," said Nick Iosue, who led the machine shop group. "We could only make and repair parts. We worked with steel, wood, aluminum, pretty much any material...one way or another, we figured out how to fix it."
One team from Royal Oaks, Michigan, was so grateful for the help that they let the mechanics take their robot for a spin.
"I was really impressed with how strong it was and the amount of torque it had," Polak said. "You could grab a hold of that thing, and it would drag you around the building."
FIRST Robotics held 37 regional competitions across the country. Winners from these competitions will compete in the championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in April.
In addition to sponsoring FIRST, NASA Glenn provided the equipment for the machine shop, funded 12 teams, sent hundreds of volunteers, and helped coordinate the event. According to Educational Technology Specialist Carol Galica, the benefits are well-worth NASA's investment.
"In the next ten years, over 50 percent of NASA's workforce is going to be eligible for retirement," said Galica, who is also the FIRST regional director. "This program gives NASA an opportunity to start developing the future workforce. There's no other competition that allows students to get real-time experience doing hands-on engineering."
Three NASA sponsored teams excelled in the Buckeye Regional. Thomas Moore High School of Wisconsin won entrepreneurship and engineering awards. Walnut Ridge High School of Ohio won the Rookie Inspiration Award, and EHOVE Career Center won the Rookie All Star Award. EHOVE was also sponsored and mentored by Sierra Lobo.
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