Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

No resources? No problem. Carson High School robotics students make good use of junk

What the Carson High robotics team lacks in resources, it more than makes up for in resourcefulness. The scrappy robotics program began two years ago with a shopping cart, which served as the team’s laboratory.

No resources? No problem. Carson High School robotics students make good use of junk


Originally published on May 9, 2014

What the Carson High robotics team lacks in resources, it more than makes up for in resourcefulness.

Carson High’s scrappy robotics program began two years ago with a shopping cart, which served as the team’s laboratory. The four founding teammates — all freshmen — spent weeks pushing it around campus, scavenging recycled materials and junk, such as broom sticks and scrap metal, that might prove useful for building an underwater remote operating vehicle.

These days, the team has a little more in the way of resources, but it remains a have-not.

Most notably, Carson High has no swimming pool, thereby complicating the effort to participate in the annual underwater robotics competition, which is happening Saturday in Long Beach.

But team members have a way of making things work, with a little help from their friends and neighbors.

One generous neighbor, the DoubleTree by Hilton in Carson, allowed the team to use its outdoor pool in the weeks leading up to today’s competition.

There, with happy-hour hotel guests sipping cocktails nearby, the teammates have perfected their two remote-controlled vehicles.

“We have to be as creative with materials as we can,”said coach Tammy Bird, a science teacher. “It’s all about repurposing materials. … It’s completely ‘MacGyver.’ ”

Built in the shape and size of microwave ovens, the sibling robots are a complex confection of PVC pipes, broomstick handles, bilge pumps used in boat toilets, scrap metal, diapers (for waterproofing electronics), underwater cameras and skeins of wire. The curious creations are manned by a kid on the surface with an Xbox controller connected to a laptop. The robots are capable of plunging to the bottom of the pool, motoring across the surface, picking up debris, opening doors and collecting samples.

“It’s kind of like the Mars rover, where you’re sending something out to collect data, since we can’t be there,” said Bird, the lead teacher with the school’s Environmental Science, Engineering and Technology Academy.

The months of hard work have led to the annual Marine Advanced Technology Education competition, which is happening all day today at Long Beach City College.

Historically, the team has fared surprisingly well, given its meager resources. In both its first and second showings, Carson High placed fourth out of the 15 or so regional competitors.

“We beat both CAMS teams last year, and they’re an engineering school,” Bird said. “The kids said, ‘Sorry Miss Bird, we didn’t win the competition.’ I’m like ‘Oh hell, you won — you beat both CAMS teams!’ ”

The only Los Angeles Unified School District competitor in Saturday’s event, Carson High is an unlikely robotics standout. It’s an urban school serving a largely low-income population that is among the most diverse in LAUSD. The school’s test scores lag far below the state average.

Of the team’s 24 members, only one or two have a parent who works in the field. None has a car; they make the two-mile trek from the school to the DoubleTree by skateboard, foot or bicycle. (The school technically has two teams — one for each robot.)

Team captain Jelani Dozier was among the four freshmen who pioneered the program two years ago. He fondly remembers pushing the shopping cart around campus that first year in search of materials.

“We have this thing at our school called the graveyard,” he said. “That’s where teachers throw out old desks and stuff they don’t need, old computers that don’t work.”

The cart made passes through there. And Bird still chuckles about how things from her classroom and school garden went missing — and wound up on the robot.

“One of my teacher boxes with wheels to cart my books and stuff around — the wheels disappeared on that,” she said. “The rotors on my sprinkler heads were used for propellers.”

The team’s biggest score that first year was an empty five-gallon water jug, which became the core component to that first legendary robot, “Bottlenose Porpoiseful,” named after the dolphin-like marine mammal.

“The shopping cart was their laboratory, and people laughed at them,” said Nuu “Tui” Tuimoloau, a retired college counselor who volunteers with the team.

The team got the last laugh: their contrivance was the fastest robot in the competition.

True to scrappy form, the Carson High roboteers have tricked out their creations with a few enhancements that have tested the limits of the rules of the game — prompting organizers to rewrite them. For instance, the Bottlenose Porpoiseful had wheels — the ones that disappeared from the teacher cart — enabling the charismatic device to scoot along the bottom of the pool when the intent is for the robots to hover and be “neutrally buoyant.”

Now, wheels are expressly forbidden. Dozier views the new rule as a badge of honor.

“We thought outside of the box,” he said.

The premise of this year’s game mimics an eerie reality on Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes. On the bed of the chilly waters separating northeast Michigan from Canada are hundreds upon hundreds of shipwrecks.

Each team is meant to be a company vying for a contract to help identify the “ships,” which in reality will consist of sundry props — such as dinner plates or ship masts fashioned out of PVC pipe — at the bottom of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Students must use their robots to pick up china, open doors, collect samples and take pictures, among other things. While achieving these tasks, the driver and co-pilot cannot be within direct view of the robots — the camera on the robot and monitor in front of them must serve as their eyes.

“It’s a real and relevant scenario,” Bird said.

For students, the program has led to real and relevant career opportunities. One junior on the team, Jennifer Baysa, this summer will work as a paid intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Dozier, who had been pinning his post-high school hopes on football, said he has found a new career path.

“Because of this, I’ve been able to go with Ms. Bird to places like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman and see what they’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s kind of changed my perspective on what I want to do after college. I want to be some form of mechanical engineer.”