LAKE MENDOCINO, Calif. â€” In 2005, the National Academies published a report demanding more investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education in America. â€œRising Above the Gathering Storm,â€ warned that for the United States to remain alive and kicking in a global economy, the nationâ€™s leaders, both public and private, must make STEM-education a priority.
To that end, determined educators like Beth Traub and Jack Gillespie are inspiring the next generation of innovators through their love of math, robotics and zombies.
Traub and Gillespie are the teacher-mentors of the Vallejo High School robotics team named The Zombots.
â€œWe got that name because are first major sponsor owns a funeral home,â€ explained Jack Gillespie, who happens to be married to Lyn Gillespie, the chief of Engineering and Technical Services Division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco District. No special math or science aptitude is required of students to join The Zombots, just insanity and commitment to the team, quips Gillespie.
But itâ€™s not the appeal of zombies rampant in todayâ€™s popular culture that seems to be attracting teens to the club. Teens like Stephanie Bond, a senior who plans to continue participating in The Zombots throughout her final year in high school despite the tremendous time commitment. Bond and other students have dedicated about 300 hours each to The Zombots this semester alone.
â€œWe warn people, donâ€™t join. Youâ€™ll sign away your soul in blood on paper to the teachers. Youâ€™ll have no life afterward. Youâ€™re done, donâ€™t do it,â€ she said. â€œBut itâ€™s totally worth it.â€
Traub explains that the team has formed strong bonds over the shared hours of joy and misery building robots and all the business that goes along with supporting the team including website development, seeking sponsors and competing in robotics competitions.
The team has developed several robots including one called Charles, named after the 1980â€™s sitcom Charles in Charge. Just two days into summer vacation, a group of twenty Zombots members deployed Charles at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Coyote Dam. The Coyote Dam project was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and completed in 1958 for purposes of flood risk reduction, water supply, recreation and stream flow regulation. The six million cubic yard dam is compacted earth fill with an impervious core and measures 160 feet high and 3,500 feet long.
The goal was to see if Charles could inspect a toe drain on the Coyote Dam to assess the conditions of the pipe, essentially checking for any degradation, explained Derrick Dunlap, San Francisco Districtâ€™s Operations & Readiness Division deputy.
Charles looks more like a rover than C-3PO and operates a bit like a remote-controlled video borescope used for inspections. The robot weighs about 7 pounds and has a 1/8î€° thick polycarbonate frame with rugged polypropylene treads on its wheels. Charles is powered by a 7.2 volt battery and has a camera mounted on it that transmits images to a nearby computer.
â€œWe want a device that can crawl up the pipe and provide some data about conditions such as rust, dents or cracks,â€ Dunlap said. â€œSo we were open to seeing what the kidsâ€™ robot could do.â€
The students placed the robot in the pipe, which is at an angle, and began directing it upward through the dark and mucky space. Charles trudged his way up several feet, but after a few starts and stops, students determined that Charles couldnâ€™t get enough traction to move upward significantly due to a large amount of sludge in the pipe the robotâ€™s treads were not prepared for. Some students appeared dejected, but most offered up ideas for solutions to the traction problem such as adding sharp-edged zip ties to the treads or making the robot heavier.
Mike Dillabough, chief of the San Francisco Districtâ€™s Operations & Readiness Division, said he liked what he was seeing and hearing and invited The Zombots team to return to Coyote Dam in August after some modifications are made to the robot.
As reports urge the need for increased STEM-education in America, robotics teamâ€™s like The Zombots are inspiring the next generation of innovators to build strong.
â€œI definitely want to take my experiences here and use them in college and my future career,â€ said Bond. â€œItâ€™s something I find interesting, figuring out how things work, working with my hands, building things and making them work,â€ she said.