Teens from El Dorado County and Folsom high schools are making a name for themselves. To be more precise, they have a name already, and their reputation is catching up fast.
It’s Team NOVA 4963, and they make robots. Then they enter their robots in regional, state and world competitions. And then they win awards for the same. Their team shirt sports the NOVA logo and the declaration “Unleashing Potential.”
El Dorado County Supervisors hosted Team NOVA at their regular Tuesday meeting this week as part of a larger effort recognizing local 4-H programs. Nathan Somavarapu is an El Dorado County Youth Commissioner, founder and spokesman for Team NOVA. An 18-year-old “rising senior” (that is: going to be a senior) at Oak Ridge High School, Nathan has been involved with the program for five years and watched enthusiasm build from one into four county teams. Each team has 10 members and two mentors.
Team NOVA’s main mentor is Srini Atluri, an engineer at Intel and Nathan’s uncle. The team captain is Millun Atluri who described the structure of FIRST “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” which is the international entity that governs the teams and competitions. Millun and three other teammates are “rising seniors” at Vista del Lago High School in Folsom.
FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter and the Autosyringe, a drug infusion device. The organization now counts many thousands of participating teams worldwide. It sponsors robotics competitions including an annual “world championship.”
Initial and ongoing funding for Team NOVA 4963 has come from the UC El Dorado Cooperative Extension which is the parent organization for the local 4-H system, now headquartered at the El Dorado County Office of Education.
The team has established a non-profit organization, USTEP, Unleashing Science, Technology and Engineering Potential (website Nova 4963.org).
Getting young people interested in science, technology and engineering is the driving spirit behind Team NOVA. And toward that end, the 4-H and ECCE involvement heavily emphasizes school and community outreach to students beginning at ages 5 to 8 in a Junior LEGO League. LEGOs are used to create the younger FIRST team projects.
Millun summarized the FIRST philosophy in part as “Gracious Professionalism,” which along with the concept of “Coopertition,” was created by Kamen and MIT Robotics professor Woodie Flowers. Teamwork and collaboration are encouraged, and competing teams are expected to be both friendly and helpful to each other when necessary. Respect and integrity are the cornerstones of the program.
The team brought two of its competition robots to demonstrate the “fun part” of the program, Nathan quipped. The first, a small-tracked vehicle similar to a military tank or a piece of earth moving equipment, was designed to fire a gumball a few feet into the air from a cell phone control device. Supervisors John Knight and Ron Briggs channeled their inner kids demanding to be targeted by the gumball canon. It worked.
A larger robot created by the team had wheels, pulleys, extension arms, drive chains and lots of specially machined parts. It also used parts from a standard “Junk Drawer Kit” with which all FIRST teams begin life. Other parts are readily available at Home Depot or any hardware emporium. A kind of forklift-like machine, it can pick up a number of racket balls, deposit them in a plastic basket, raise the basket up to about four-feet, maneuver around and put them into another basket — controlled by a team member with a laptop computer. Supervisors, county staff and audience were dazzled and impressed and couldn’t get enough. Norma Santiago asked if the “thing” had a name.
It does. It’s “Pulsar.”
Jack Sweeney, longtime sponsor and supporter of 4-H, arranged for Tuesday’s presentation and praised the team for its efforts at bringing scientific disciplines to local students in such an entertaining and encouraging way. Knight “applauded” the whole team for its outstanding communications skills.
For more information about 4-H programs, contact Tracy Celio, Youth Development Representative with the Central Sierra, UC Cooperative Extension, at (530) 621-5507 or e-mail [email protected]