Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mars Rover Mission at the Tech Challenge

Today was D-Day for the teams competing in the Tech Challenge and that included Arjun's team, The S.A.G.A of the Flaming Chicken (don't ask me why :-)). The challenge was modeled on the Mars Rover problem of getting out of a crater. The design problem consisted of a drop of the device from a 12 ft height to land on a strip of carpet (the crater) and then ascent of a steep (60 degree) incline to get to the top of the crater. There were two sets of teams, grades 9-12 in the morning and grades 5-8 in the afternoon. All told there were over 190 teams from schools all over the Bay Area. There were a wide range of devices ranging from very sophisticated climbing robots with cushioned landing support of various kinds to even manual jump rope based devices. The best thing about these challenges is the variety and creativity they generate. The kids have great fun coming up with interesting devices, names, themes and delivery mechanisms. The Tech Challenge team also sets up the judging to be as broad and inclusive, and as encouraging as possible, to appreciate the effort the kids put into the contest.

For the S.A.G.A the day did not start off too well. True to form S.A.G.A had come up with another Jules Verne like device held in air by helium balloons and propelled by four electric motors driving large propellers as directional thrusters.

One half of the team went to fill the balloons with helium for their device while I carted the rest with their device and the cheering squad to the Tech Museum. We got there well in time and checked in. The balloon squad checked in a half hour later and unloaded the balloons and then disappeare dto park their cars. Another half hour passed and two of the team was still missing. Closer enquiry revealed that one of them was running out of gas in his car (a '50s El Camino) and had gone on a refuelling mission. Finally with about an hour to go before the contest closing all the members were accounted for. Then they discovered that they had forgotten their biography forms, including the one I had painstakingly written, at home.

Well, they went for it without the forms. They attracted a lot of attention with the device. A lot of other kids and curious parents came and quizzed them about their device. It was one of the few non-robotic, non-remote controlled devices around and certainly the orange balloons, yellow t-shirts with chicken cartoon faces for the team and one of the team members dressed as a white chicken had some visual impact. The device survived the 12 foot drop aided by the helium, but the propellers were not very effective as steering devices and the device did not make the landing on the ramp within the prescribed three minutes in spite of a cheering crowd. So, I believed that after three winning years they would have to take one year without a prize. The team went on with their interviews with the judges and came back rather enthusiastic in spite of the setbacks. They decided to give away the balloons to the small kids in the audience. This of course, won them some brownie points with the crowd.

The Tech Museum hands out about 18 awards for each section, roughly 1 in 5 teams entering get some kind of award. The awards started with a good number going to Cupertino High School (the SAGA's school) and almost an equal number going to rival Monta Vista. Imagine my shock when the style awards were announced and the S.A.G.A got the first one of two! You can check out all the award winners here. You just have to click through each one patiently. The team had pulled it off for the fourth year in a row. Their team work and enthusiasm had converted almost certain defeat into victory.

The final tally on the awards was Cupertino High 6 - Monta Vista 6. Rather impressive, because I think Monta Vista is academically a superior school and certainly more competitive. But, certainly the Cupertino High teams were tough competitors too. I guess a lot of the credit goes to some teachers like Chemistry teacher DeMuth and Biology teacher Ujifusa who encourage their classes to participate and award them class points for participation. Both teachers were there in person during the weekend cheering and capturing the events on videocam. That's dedication in teaching for you. I guess they are some of the few along with the organizers of the Tech Challenge who impart the spirit of innovation and a love of engineering and creativity to our children in Silicon Valley.

To Melissa McAlexander, Brittany Sabol and others at the Tech Museum who run the Tech Challenge, I can only say thank you for helping bring the spark of creativity to the kids in Silicon Valley. I am rather proud that some of the Tech Challenge organizers are also MIT alumni, because, at least in part, I am sure, they drew some of their inspiration from the other Tech. I am proud to have been associated with the S.A.G.A. of the Flaming Chicken these last four years. They grew from a group of friends who dreaded technology to some who dream of taking at least an engineering minor in college. When I look back on these times, I am sure I will say these were the good old days, and I am sure the kids who participated in the Tech Challenge will say the same.


P.S. I started writing this on the 28th of April, but just finished it today, May 6th :-)

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