Gear Heads: Guilford High robotics team heavy into metal

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Feb. 17, 2008

GUILFORD — It was late in the evening on a recent school night, and Tom Schaefer’s metal shop at Guilford High School was still full of students, parents and others interested in robotics.

The group, members of the high school’s Apple Pi Robotics Team and their mentors, has been working 25 hours a week building its latest robot, which it will enter in the regional FIRST robotics competition in Hartford next month.

The robot, which consists of a metal frame about 5 feet high with a base full of wiring, won’t be able to speak, do math or clean the house. The goal, Schaefer said, is to build a machine with extendable arms that can carry a ball 40 inches in diameter around a ring and over a narrow bridge 6 feet off the ground, scoring points every time the ball passes a finish line.

“It’s supposed to be competitive, but yet not like a football game where it’s just all about winning,” Schaefer said, using the hybrid word “co-ompetition” to describe the atmosphere. In the regional competition, which includes about 80 groups, teams will vie with each other for points but will also have to work in groups to win.

At regionals last year, the team won the “Rookie All-Star Award,” earning members a trip to the national competition in Atlanta. The award is based on sportsmanship and exemplifying the spirit of the program, Schaefer said.

In its second year of existence, the team has about 35 students, up from 25 last year. Schaefer, who teaches automotive, power and energy and metal shop classes in his third year at the high school, is the team’s faculty adviser.

“We try to stress that it’s not really about the robot,” he said. “It’s nice to finish the robot, (but) really what it’s about is showing them how to work together cooperatively.”

While some of the students are contemplating careers in engineering or robotics, others participate by doing fund-raising, publicity or computer programming.

“The model for the team is to run it like a small business, so if you don’t have people who are into engineering, they do publicity,” said Camille Solbrig, whose son, Alan, is a member.

The team got started in 2006 when Al Bishop, whose grandson participated in the New Hampshire competition, got in touch with Shaefer. Bishop’s Orchards is one of the team’s main sponsors, which led to the “Apple Pi” logo: the mathematical symbol pi inside a drawing of an apple.

For the Hartford competition, the team had six weeks from receiving its kits and the instructions for the game — which all teams get the same day — until the event starts March 13. Usually, the students and adult mentors meet once or twice a week, but right now they are working several days a week from after school until 8 or 9 p.m.

The price tag for the team is steep, as far as student clubs go. Entering the regional event costs about $6,000, including registration and the parts for the robot. The team has an annual budget of almost $30,000, Shaefer said. With grant support from Bishop’s Orchards, NASA and the Guilford Fund for Education, and a donation of machinery from a Guilford graduate, the team has not had to rely on the school district for support.

Nick Tafuto, who graduated from Guilford High School last year and is a mentor for the team, said he thinks interest in the program will continue to grow. His younger brother, Louis, a freshman at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, is also working on the robot.

Tafuto, who calls his former teacher “Schaef” and describes him as a “down-to-earth guy,” said Schaefer has gotten students involved in the car shop or metal work who might not have considered the courses.

“You actually learn a lot because it’s a fun class to be in,” Tafuto, 19, said. “Everyone takes it now — the most random person. You’ll be like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen you work with your hands. Don’t hurt yourself, but it’ll be fun!’”

Team co-captain Madison Calhoun, a sophomore, said she got involved with the team last year because of her interest in science and programming. She said the group is a good way to work on leadership skills.

“I’m learning how to work with a group of people and how to help everyone work toward the same goal,” Calhoun said. “It’s not just building a robot.”

Many of the mentors in the program are parents, but Guilford resident Kevin Care contributes his expertise as the owner of the Metal Shop in North Branford. Care suggested a program for the high school students to build their own hot rod, and became involved with the robotics team instead.

“This is my way of giving back to the community a little bit,” Care said. “We’ve kind of lost the hands-on learning, how to use tools. I learned in high school how to become a mechanic.”

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