LAKE PLACID - After a schoolwide lunch hour, Northwood School students assembled early on the afternoon of Friday, March 10 for their regularly scheduled schoolwide assembly.
But this time, there was a robot named "Ricky Bobby" waiting on stage to crash the party.
There Ricky Bobby sat inanimate, a curious collection of fastened pieces of aluminum on the outside. On the inside, he was chock-full-of neon yellow oversized Wiffle Balls.
Several feet above Ricky Bobby sat an elevated blue recycle bin placed in an equally curious spot atop a ladder.
Then, Northwood School students Isaac Newcomb of Lake Placid and Palmer Feinberg of Saranac Lake grabbed a remote control at the podium at the other end of the stage. Per their wireless controls, Ricky Bobby swiveled back and forth before shooting the wiffle balls into the recycle bin. Northwood School students chuckled from their seats as the hunk of aluminum scraps, wires and motors played a version of bionic basketball.
This showcase in front of Northwood School's student body and teachers was a proud moment for Technology Coordinator Jeff Martin and the small group of students who comprise his "Applied Robotics" class. The year-long class meets for 40 minutes per day, and after a first semester where they learned elements of engineering, design, programming and coding, they and Ricky Bobby will compete in two robotics competitions later this month.
"It's very NASCAR," Martin said. "You go to the pits, you get 20 minutes to rebuild your transmission and put it back out. And that's sometimes what you have to do."
The team is comprised of Northwood students Palmer, Newcomb and Derek Yu, David Li and JoJo Chen of Shanghai, China and Richard Liu of Qingdao, China. Later this month, they will compete in the international high school robotics competition organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
"Coming together as a team has been really good," Martin said. "They worked as individuals in small groups at the beginning of the year, two people to a group building their own robots. Then we went to a (simulated) competition and everybody had to be there making it work. It was a real pull-together and team effort, compromising and talking and discussing and working through things. "That has been a real strength to help them get through the rest of this because every part of this is hard. You design it and it doesn't work, and you take it all down and rebuild it. Because they've all worked on different components, they had to make them all fit together."
The team was scheduled to leave Wednesday, March 15 to travel to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy for four days of regional competition. Worldwide, more than 6,000 high school teams have registered for similar regional competitions.
Here in New York, the Northwood team will compete at two events within the New York Tech Valley region, first as one of 40 teams at RPI, then the following weekend as one of 60 teams at another four-day competition in Westchester County.
Most of Northwood's competitors will be from the United States, though several teams come from Canada and one team will travel to Troy from as far away as Israel. If Northwood finishes in the top three, they will advance as one of 128 teams to the world championship.
This is the first year Northwood and Martin have fielded a team after Feinberg competed on a Clarkson University-organized team last year. For Martin, this is a welcome return to computer programming at Northwood School after similar programs were dormant at the school for two decades.
"I went back to being 12 years old and learning to program and started a computer programming class," Martin said. "That was a huge success for the kids and they were driven to have more. So this class is a totally student-driven initiative."
Through the first half of the school year, Martin's students learned relevant skills that can be applied to robotics. Then at this start of this second semester, it was unveiled to the team that they had six weeks to build a robot for this year's competition: "FIRST Steamworks."
The goal of the competition is to use drivable robots - like Ricky Bobby - to fuel a steam pressure hopper to lift an airship. The closer teams come to taking flight, the more points they earn.
Inside the Northwood School auditorium on March 10, the team acted out this very task as a narrator of a YouTube video described the competition to the student body.
"Alliances of three teams each prepare for a long distance airship race by collecting fuel to build steam pressure," the narrator said, "installing gears to engage rotors and climbing aboard for liftoff. The airship best prepared for flights when the launch timer reaches zero, wins!"
To build Ricky Bobby, the class was supplied a kit of motors and other electrical parts by FIRST and allocated a budget of $4,000 to spend on the robot's structure and makeup.
The team has only spent $2,500 on Ricky Bobby, and after rebuilding him following a test-run in Albany, the team is confident heading into their two competitions.
"It was a big warehouse where they set up a makeshift field," Newcomb said, "and so we were practicing going to the other side of the field and getting in gear.
"It was a mock-up of the competition field made out of plywood, the correct dimensions," Martin added. "We tested the shooter, gear-catcher and found out there are all kinds of weird angles we didn't know about on the field.
"Then we came back here after learning what we needed to do and completely rebuilt the robot with better planning and parts," Newcomb added.
As for the robot's name, the team said they frequently quote lines from the movie "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." It's a 2006 comedy where comedian Will Ferrell stars as a NASCAR driver who only believes in winning.
And as the team packed up their version of Ricky Bobby after the assembly on March 10, Palmer smiled as he recited one of Will Ferrell's famous quotes from the movie.
"If you ain't first," he said, "you're last."