Rise of the Machines: Western Albemarle High Robotics Automates County

Guest post by Brian Cohen.

Have you heard the increasing whirring and buzzing in the past three years? It’s not the cicadas. It’s the robots. They’re here, and they’re taking over schools, thanks to a local group of dedicated and self-described geeks—uh—roboticians.

Western Albemarle High School’s Robotics Club was founded by a small group of students and counselor Caroline Bertrand in 2011. Not only has WAHS Robotics worked hard to advance two teams (Loose Screws and Geek Gods) to the state championship robotics tournament every year since it was established, it has also led a movement to introduce the interdisciplinary science to other schools throughout the county and Charlottesville.

WAHS students and mentors have trained five teams at three high schools and worked with budding engineers at middle and elementary schools, teaching them the fundamentals of robot design and basic programming.

They also persuaded the Charlottesville Boys and Girls club to introduce robotics to over 150 children.

It’s no accident that Western is the nexus of central Virginia robotics; it’s a self-reliant facility that provides crucial resources for students interested in mechanical, computer and electrical engineering.  Once the Screws and Gods know the tasks their machines must accomplish to win a particular year’s competition, both teams use animated, 3D CAD programs to design their robots. Then they assemble stock parts ordered from robotics suppliers and fabricate custom components by various techniques, including casting aluminum in a forge or turning it on a lathe, or 3D-print plastic components in the classroom.

If WAHS Robotics sounds more like an enterprise than a school club, that’s because it is. To fund the design and building of the robots, competition entry fees and travel expenses, plus lots of pizzas for meetings and 11th-hour pit-crew overhauls, the club spends approximately $6,000 per year. Most of the money comes from educational and corporate sponsors (such as UVa Engineering, Rockwell Collins, MITRE, SEDNA and SRC) and parents. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. WAHS roboticians have appeared on radio interviews at WINA’s Rob Schilling Show and WMRA‘s The Spark with Martha Woodroof and were featured on both CBS19 and WVIR29 newscasts to talk about their program and appeal for sponsorships.

For more information on WAHS Robotics or to sponsor the club, visit http://wahsrobotics.com

editor’s note: NBC29 reports that WAHS’ club is going to the nationals. Thanks to @PamMoran for the tip!

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