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Jim Elliot Christian High School’s Raptor Force robotics team takes first place in Israel

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Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:45 am, Thu Mar 29, 2012.

What do you get when you combine robots, a room full of teenage engineers and more than 200 hours of hard work?

A first-place trophy from the first Regional robotics competition in Tel Aviv, Israel.

A team of clever kids from Jim Elliot Christian High School built a basketball playing robot and qualified for the World Championship in St. Louis, Mo., in April. They also earned the right to shave off their instructor's mustache in front of the whole school.

But how did a team from Lodi get connected with Israel in the first place?

During a world robotics competition in Atlanta a few years ago, Raptor Force had an Israeli flag hanging on their robot to show support for the people involved in the Gaza conflict. A few teams from Israel were present at the competition, too. The Israeli general consul was observing the teams at work when he noticed the flag. After talking with Raptor Force, he invited them to compete at the regional competition in Israel. Jim Elliot has sent a team to that contest ever since.

Jacob Smith, 16, said the scene over there is very different from competing in the States.

"We're very safety-oriented here. There's no loud music or crowds allowed where the teams are working," said Smith. "In Israel, it's more of controlled chaos."

Winning first place at the Israel regional was a big moment for the team.

"We've won others, but this is one we worked really hard to win," said Tom Bray, instructor. "This is the dream of the man who gave us the money to start."

Dough Burh, a school trustee and hockey player, saw potential in the program and provided the first two years of funding out of his pocket in 2005, said Bray.

The competition itself is pretty straightforward.

Each team has six weeks to turn what is essentially a box of sheet metal and parts into a machine that can complete the assigned challenge.

This year's challenge was "Rebound Rumble." Robots had to be designed and programmed to shoot baskets.

The robot that Raptor Force created used tank drive technology to operate each side independently for sharper turns. To scoop up basketballs from the ground, the robot has a broom much like a vacuum roller underneath. Once the ball is in position, a curved metal "hand" launches the ball into the waiting basket.

It was also the only robot in the competition able to pick itself back up after falling over.

The whole team spent six weeks working six days a week until 9 p.m. or later to get the project done.

In the end, the contraption weighs 120 pounds and cost between $6,000 and $7,000 to build, including a $1,500 onboard computer. In the arena, the first 15 seconds are completely automated. Two students then drive the robot and shoot baskets for two minutes. Teams are grouped in threes, called alliances. They work together to score the most baskets and balance on bridges at the end of the round.

Right now, the robot is locked up in the robotics lab at the high school. It must stay covered and unmodified for the next competition. This weekend brings the team to Madera High School for another regional competition. Inspectors will review the machine and check paperwork to be sure no one has tampered with it.

"Once you build the robot, you might as well use it," said Bray.

Students on the robotics team aren't necessarily acing their science courses. But they have a better understanding of how science and technology translate to the real world.

"Working on robots encourages these kids to dive further into math and science. It makes it interesting," said Mike Corsetto, a UC Davis graduate who mentors the team.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com. For more information about local education issues, read our Education Café blog.

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