In a dimly lit workshop full of buzz saws, loose wires and 3-D plans, Lance Plater and Victor McConnell hover over a couple of pressurized air tanks rigged to a plywood board.

“We need to space these out to keep the tubes from bending, otherwise they’ll leak,” McConnell told Plater.

The twin white air tanks don’t look like much, but in less than three weeks, they’ll power a pneumatic arm attached to a robot that Plater and about two dozen other Santa Ynez Valley Union High School students are building for competition.

“Everything will leak at some point,” said McConnell, a founding member of the club, whose rookie team last year contended with a set of leaking air tubes that could have cost them the competition.

The MechaPirates are one of five teams in the Santa Ynez Valley Robotics League, wiring, programming and building robots for competitions sponsored through FIRST, meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. During the MechaPirates 2014 rookie year, the squad of underdogs placed second in the world out of 400 teams.

On a recent Saturday, the club piled into Industrial Arts Room 2, as they have every Saturday during build season and most weekdays after school, to continue tinkering with wires, improving upon plans and rushing to finish before their six week deadline.

Roughly 15 students are scattered throughout the MechaPirates' workshop. Some are in the corner, fabricating body parts for the robot, while a small crowd huddles around the chassis they plan to take to the Ventura regional competition in March.

They’re hooking up wires and organizing the bundles inside of the shell of the robot, trying to avoid a messy tangle that caused some trouble last year. If something breaks down during competition, this will make it easier to fix, said Robyn Ribet, the club’s student treasurer.

“This is kind of the Formula One of robot building,” said Kevin Sparkman, a mentor to the student builders. “We have to fabricate everything.”

Instructions are minimal.

“Stack those,” Sparkman said, pointing to a gray plastic packing crate. “That was all the instruction they got.”

There are some rules, however. Robots can’t cost more than $4,000 and have to meet certain weight requirements.

While last year, students constructed a robot capable of passing a large ball back and forth on a playing field, weaving to avoid getting bashed by competing robots, the object of this year’s game is simpler: lift as many gray plastic crates on top of each other as high as possible, then set a trashcan atop the towering stack.

But winning the competition isn’t a concern, said McConnell, who now mentors students.

“It’s not about the final product. No matter what happens on the field, the fact that we’re able to get a robot there, that’s the achievement itself,” McConnell said. 

For now, the team’s main objective, Ribet said, is to get the robot complete in the six-week build period before it is sealed up until the competition. After it’s completed, the squad will begin building an identical robot to practice steering.

Industrial technology-based programs have been gaining popularity at SYVU High School. The campus recently opened a student-run computer repair station dubbed the Genius Bar, and next year, students can gain credit for joining the MechaPirates.

Some have even been dropping traditional after-school activities, like sports, in favor of the robotics club.

Tucked away behind the shadows of football stadium bleachers, past the gym and in the back of the high school, students build metal frames, operate buzz saws and solder wires throughout the MechaPirates workshop.

“I chose robotics. The competition and the excitement of the team I’ve experienced here is 100 times more than I’ve experienced as a soccer player,” said MechaPirates Club President AnnaHelen Weber, who hung up her cleats last year to join the club.

Weber admits that when a teacher approached her about joining the team, her first thought was that college admissions officers would like to see it listed on her application.

It wasn’t until she started building robots that Weber said she learned how much her math and physics skills would be used, pointing to a board filled with equations determining what she calls the “tippyness” of a pneumatic arm.

“Everybody understands what it’s like to be on a sports team, but none of my friends understand what I’m doing as a robotics student, and you go into competition and then there are thousands of kids and everyone knows exactly what everyone is going through,” Weber said. 

The hands-on approach to learning is paying off.

Students say the project-based club has helped them develop their skills. Angel Chang, a 17-year old junior who spends most of her time rendering 3-D plans said that despite studying drafting for three years, she has learned the most from spending time in the MechaPirates workshop.

In the Valley, four other teams participate in the FIRST program. The competition varies, with grade school students enrolling in introductory “Lego leagues,” advancing to Erector sets, and eventually, the First Robotics Competition, which requires students build their robots from scratch.

“I can’t even imagine or fathom they can build robots the way they can,” Andy Weber, AnnaHelen’s father said while looking out at the workshop.

Having a tiered-system of robot builders throughout the community pays off, said George Plater, whose son Lance is the MechaPirates student vice-president.

“Now you’ve got these younger, hopefully feeder teams, that are going to … move onto high school, so they have this experience coming in, whereas these guys last year were green as could be,” said George Plater.

Lance who was recently accepted to Stanford University for their Mechanical Engineering program, has been visiting younger teams and mentoring them along the way.

Even the MechaPirates get help. Every Friday night, they load parts into a van and trek to Santa Maria’s Hancock College to pick up pointers on welding, mechanical engineering and wiring from professors and college students.

“The entire program becomes a teaching center for everybody,” McConnell said. 

Harold Pierce covers the Santa Ynez Valley as a reporter for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce


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