Several students from Ashland High School's FIRST Robotics team gather in the school's metal fabrication room Wednesday and aim a launcher they've built at a piece of wood balanced on a stool.
"I can be the feed guy, right?" says 17-year-old Ellis Hammond-Pereira.
A 12-volt motorcycle battery powers a small motor that whirs to life and spins a small wheel. Hammond-Pereira feeds a flying disc into a slot, and the disc goes spinning across the room, slamming into a metal door with a loud bang. Three shots later, a disc strikes the targeted piece of wood, and it clatters to the floor to a chorus of cheers.
It's only the fourth day of the season, and students in the group — purposefully named My Favorite Team — are encouraged by the simple device's success.
They belong to one of 60 teams participating in the FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, regional competition at Portland's Memorial Coliseum in March. Their final product has to be completed by Feb. 19. In addition to shooting a flying disc, their robot has to pick up the projectiles and scale a pyramid. Top placers in the competition can advance to the national competition.
Already, returning team members feel they're more ahead of schedule than they were in 2012.
"Last year we didn't get to building until about three weeks in," says Matt Knudsen, 17.
That robot had to be designed to shoot hoops and balance on a bridge.
"I think (this year's) is going to be easier," says Josh Majchrzak, 17.
Team members say they're excited to get going. They love robots and programming. Some, such as 16-year-old Austin Schmidt, have built their own, including a remote-controlled paintball gun.
"It's fun to come and play with more expensive robots," Schmidt says.
Jericho Walker-Roberts, 17, says FIRST Robotics is a good platform for students with these types of interests — mechanics, robotics, electronics, programming, problem-solving. The program is a nonprofit organization founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, intended to encourage youth involvement in science and technology.
"There aren't many things that incorporate this many different skills," he says. "It's pretty satisfying."
Adviser Susan Moen says there are about 17 students signed up, the majority of them returning members from the 2012 team. Some of the members made a trip to Oregon State University on Jan. 5 to get their kits and receive the challenge.
"The idea of this is to give the kids something impossible to do with their skill level, with their amount of money, with their amount of time, and see what they come up with," Moen says.
The team has financial backing. NASA awarded it a $5,000 grant, and it received additional funds from the Sandra James Music Foundation, Ashland Home Net and Evogeneao, an Ashland website that promotes evolutionary biology. All told, the team received about $11,000 to help its efforts. Nearly half already has been spent on kits and registration.
Adviser and coach Paul Moen, Susan's husband, says a more focused approach toward the design process will be key for the team this year.
"Last year's robot was very complicated," he says.
Paul Moen adds he thinks the 2013 team is up to the task, even with only six weeks of design, build and test time. The team will be meeting almost daily to make sure it gets done on time.
"These kids are really smart, and they love the challenge this presents," he says.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org