By Jim Gauger
Special to the CS&T

LANSDALE – Learning about science is one of the most popular pursuits among students at Lansdale Catholic High School in Montgomery County.

Science holds a special place at the school. It’s probably due to the FIRST Robotics Competition that is in its 14th year.

Since 1997, Lansdale Catholic has entered the FIRST Robotics Competition, which challenges teams of students and their mentors to solve an engineering design problem by building a robot in a six-week time frame.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization founded by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the gyroscope-based electric scooter, the Segway Human Transporter. {{more}}

The “Cyber-Crusaders” of Lansdale Catholic are in their fifth week of building a robot for the FIRST regional competitions scheduled for March 11-13 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, and April 7-9 at the Liacouras Center at Temple University in Philadelphia. The team won regional championships in 2002 (Drexel University, Philadelphia), 2006 (Buckeye in Cleveland, Ohio) and 2007 (Pacific Northwest, Portland, Ore.). In 2004, the “Cyber Crusaders” received the Chairman’s Award at the Pittsburgh, Pa., regional.

The person most responsible for this success is Sharon Williams, the science chair and head robotics adviser at Lansdale Catholic. Williams, a biology teacher, has taught at Lansdale Catholic for 33 years, and in the Archdiocese for 36.

In a school of 820 students, between 35 and 60 volunteer each year for the robotics competition. The students are helped by a loyal group of parents.

“Robotics has applications in medicine, industry, space, even in the home,” Williams explained. “The competition began as a way to improve science in America and working with business.”

The students are busy at school building the robot from 6 to 9 p.m. every night, and also on Saturday. “They’re from all different backgrounds,” said James Casey, president of Lansdale Catholic.

“I’ve seen baseball players and members of the stage crew. They’re very dedicated students. I’ve seen kids grow from this. It’s so positive to see a shy, quiet freshman blossom. The kids get involved with different niches; they get a chance to mingle with mentors.”

Casey, who has been at Lansdale Catholic for 21 years (the first 18 as development director), says the school was the first in the Archdiocese to enter the competition in 1997.

“We have girls and boys – all intellectual levels,” Williams said. “We have kids who are very much into science, and we have artsy students. Some don’t feel they can build a robot, then find out they can do it.”

Williams said leaders emerge and that the students are put into different groups with different responsibilities, e.g., driving the robot, fixing the robot.

According to the rules, the robot’s maximum height is 60 inches and maximum weight is 120 pounds. The team is also building a mini-robot that is included in the competition.

This year’s challenge is called “Logo Motion.” The students were given a kit of parts made up of motors, batteries, a control system, a PC and a mix of automation components, but no instructions.

The challenge: Working with professional engineering mentors, the team has six weeks to build a robot that can maneuver a field flanked by poles and earn points by hanging as many triangle, circle and square logo pieces on each pole as possible. Bonus points will be awarded for each robot that can hang and assemble logo pieces to form the FIRST logo as well as deploy a “mini-bot” to climb vertical poles positioned within the middle of the field. Competitions measure the effectiveness of each team’s robot and the students’ ability to collaborate effectively.

Lansdale Catholic was one of 500 high school teams sponsored this year by JCPenney, receiving a gift of $1,000. Other funds are raised from a Super Bowl hoagie sale and a sponsorship from Comcast.

Among the parents who help with the project are Frank Larkin (14 years), Maureen Weiss (nine years) and John Cross (four years). They are parents of students who participated in the robotics project and have graduated.

Williams also mentioned Tom Rogers, a father of two sons involved this year – Jim, a senior, in his fourth year of competition, and John, a freshman.

“Since the beginning we made it that the kids are actively involved,” Williams said. “The adults teach but the kids take ownership of it. … That’s why I got involved. This is a non-sports event; it’s another outlet for the students.”

Despite past successes, Williams is cautious about this year’s competition. “We don’t know (how we will do) until we see the competition,” she said. “The mini-bot competition is very interesting. We did well in that competition in Oregon. Usually, we do very well.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Glenside.