The program may be small with just 13 students, but First Robotics at Ramona High School gained some big funds from NASA recently that they're hoping will get them an out-of-this-world experience.
Richard Waters, who teaches various math courses at the local high school, has been volunteering his time to be the faculty adviser for the robotics program for the past four years. His most recent proof of passion is a $5,000 grant from NASA that he applied for and was awarded.
"Dozens of teams are sponsored by NASA—it's a really big deal," Waters told Patch. "We got NASA as a sponsor this year because the economy doesn't really allow to support us anymore."
Waters said that in past years, the group has received grants from BAE Systems, an engineering company, local land developers and parents of students.
This year, they've gotten some help with funding, which they're required to fully supply each year, from the Ramona Kiwanis and Ramona Family Naturals.
The NASA grant, Waters said, will help pay for an extra regional competition for the robotics team, which calls themselves NeoTech Robotics.
"I'm excited about having two this year," Waters said of their two regiona competitions: one in San Diego and the other in San Bernardino. "We learned a lot from last year and the extra competition will help."
What exactly did the team learn last year? President of the club Robert Hayes said last year's mistakes in preparation at regionals will set them to succeed at this year's competition.
"We learned a lot last year... on how to operate the robot and fix design problems," Hayes told Patch.
Vice President Gerrit Groenewold said he's looking forward to "build season" this year, which is six weeks long for the team of 13 to design, build and test the robot.
"We've learned how to manage our time," Groenewold said of the team's growth. "I think this year we have the biggest team."
The two Ramona High seniors are the designers of the team and both hope to pursue careers in engineering, with Hayes looking to attend UC Irvine and Groenewold attending the University of Advancing Technology in Arizona.
Waters said he initially thought his job to be adviser to the group of smart, young engineers would be a piece of cake, "building Legos after school." But the math teacher quickly learned that it was much more.
"It's turned out to be a huge job," Waters said. "We're here nights, weekends. But it's a giant learning experience."
And for the kids, too. The robotics program, which is nationwide non-profit, helps to teach kids to work collectively and to teach them skills that range from public relations to aluminum welding.
"I enjoy the opportunity to work with like-minded people toward something I want to do as a career," Hayes said. "It's gainina practical knowledge—more than you can learn in a classroom."
Groenewold said when he first joined the group four years, it was just something to keep him busy. Now, the robotics engineer hopeful said it's a group of friends and fun.
"I love being pushed past my limits," he said. "I've realized we all have the same interests."
NeoTech Robotics will spend the next two months building and perfecting their robot for the San Diego Regional Competition at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego on March 7-9.
The $5,000 NASA grant will fund the San Bernardino Regional Competition two weeks later on March 21-23. Cost is $4,000 to enter the competition, Waters said, and $1,000 for the parts to build the robot.
"We have a very good team this year," Groenewold said. "I'm pretty excited."
Waters said that the kids enthusiasm and ingenuity keep him coming back year after year.
"The kids get a lot of really important lessons and skills out of the program," he said. "It's fun to see what the kids get out of it."
The First Robotics program is completely dependent upon donations and grants. Waters said that the NASA grant is a one-time thing, so future funding is dependent upon fundraisers and the goodness of local businesses.
Want to help out the local robotics team? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll get you in touch with Richard Waters for more details.