Science as ‘sport’: Port Townsend robotics team wins laurels, creates learning opportunity
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Port Townsend High School junior Rose Ridder, a member of the robotics team, prepares a demonstration of Buster the robot at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce meeting on Monday. Team coach Austin Henry is in the background. —Photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — As the Port Townsend High School Robotics Team has earned accolades and awards in its first year of existence, it is creating a fulfilling educational option, the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce was told Monday.

“This was a great opportunity to get the students used to wiring electronics and get hands-on experience with screwdrivers for the first time for a lot of these students,” team coach Austin Henry said.

“The goal is to create a sport for high school students for science and engineering in the same realm as basketball and football; the idea being if you create a spectacle around something, you will get students interested.

“And if you can get students interested in science and technology, then you have one hell of a program.”

About 70 people attended the program with Henry and junior Rose Ridder, 17, who followed the speech with a demonstration of the robot’s abilities.

The team formed last year and created a small box-like robot that moved back and forth.

This year’s project was somewhat more ambitious, with team members entering the FIRST Robotics Competition and succeeding beyond their expectations, Henry said.

In the competition’s first round in early March Snohomish, the team won the Rookie Inspiration Award.

A week later, it earned the Rookie All Star award and was the top seeded team after qualifications.

At the April 12 district championships in Portland, Ore., it finished 36th out of 153.

“This put our rookie team in the top 25 percent of all the teams, and we are quite proud of that,” Henry said.

All of the participating teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition are given design parameters and can use any ideas and materials to construct their robot as long as they are within those boundaries.

The machines needed to have the ability to lift and throw a three-foot wide inflatable ball.

The robot called “Buster” measures 32 inches long, 23 inches wide and 30 inches tall and weighs 90 pounds empty of batteries.

It is powered by the same 12-volt batteries as motor scooters and powered wheelchairs.

The battery life depends on the task, and the team always takes four fully charged batteries to any competition, Ridder said.

The commitment to the robotics team is substantial, Ridder said, with the operative equation: “Robotics. Homework. Sleep. Pick Two.”

Henry said the required schedule to complete the robot in three weeks would be a challenge for any adult engineering team.

“The competitions are an absolute zoo,” Henry said.

“There are people jumping up and down, there are mascots everywhere, you hear buzzsaws and everyone wears safety glasses.

“It is one of the most fun things I have ever done.”

“I had been told that it was going to be amazing and astounding and all of those other words,” Ridder said.

“But until I went, I really had no clue.”

Summer project

Henry said the robotics team is developing a summer project and will host a competition at the Northwest Maritime Center to develop self-floating robotic crab pots.

Currently, crab pots can be lost at the bottom of a bay, with the crabs either escaping or dying before the pot can be recovered, Henry said.

A robotic crab pot would detect problems and automatically propel the pot to the surface so the crabs can be recovered.

Henry said there will be three categories: the cheapest crab pot that can lift itself, the pot that can lift the most weight and the one constructed for the least amount of money that can lift the most weight.

“If you get there, then you approach a commercially viable product,” he said.

Henry said the program has specific needs in order to continue its momentum.

It is seeking volunteers with almost any skills, and engineering skills are not required.

It also needs sponsors, help with travel logistics, transportations and preparation of hot meals.

“This is not a cheap program,” Henry said.

“But if you compare it with football, it’s actually quite cost effective.”

For more information, contact Henry at 301-775-0147 or


Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or

Last modified: May 05. 2014 6:27PM
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