Any neighbors who were concerned can now relax.
The students are part of a robotic team and have been working tirelessly for months building a robot. And not just any robot – their electronically powered mechanical creation just won the First Tech Challenge Super Regional event, topping 74 area winning teams from 17 Western states over the three-day event in Tacoma, Wash., that will send the device – and the 11 students who have spent literally thousands of hours preparing it – to a world competition coming up in Houston April 19-22.
Team captains are seniors Collin Nilsen and Allison Trent.
The team, representing the Point Loma community, actually went undefeated throughout the grueling event, earning the title of "Winning Alliance Captain," which means they were the top-ranked team when choosing other teams to join in alliances for certain portions of the competition.
Students in Point Loma have been working on such projects for the last eight years, but this is the first time they have qualified for the super regional, something that required them to finish among the top four of 36 teams at the local level.
And work they did. By team mentor Matt Nilsen's calculation, the teens spent over 5,000 hours of time conceiving, building, testing, evaluating, rebuilding and retesting all aspects of the finished robot. A notebook which includes engineering notes and drawings, now runs more than 300 pages.
To ensure fair competition, a new common challenge is announced each year.
One of the challenges for this year's teams was to construct a robot that could not only recognize the difference between red and blue plastic Wiffle balls, but also scoop them up and shoot them into a raised basket in the middle of the competition area.
Another challenge involved picking up large inflatable yoga balls and depositing them atop the same Wiffle ball basket.
Robots built must be no larger than an 18-inch cube. Competition takes place in a 12-by-12 foot space with 12-inch high glass walls and interlocking rubber floor mats as a surface.
"One of the great things is they give us no plans. Each team starts with nothing and comes up with a unique robot," said Casey Wilson, one of four sophomores on hand to explain the group's project.
"There are some definite limitations," said Joe Landon. "Your robot can't shoot the Wiffle balls over a certain height and you have to be conscious and aware of other robots and be spatially aware of the battlefield. There are two teams on the field at once, each with three people, so communication is very important."
"For our design process, we try to get inspiration from past designs," said Shanon Lee. "We also make lots of prototypes and this year we've also done some preview modeling of what we think could be a good design. We test our prototypes, and if they work, they go on the robot."
With the challenge of shooting Wiffle balls, the group went through much testing.
"We've gone through lots of different designs," Lee continued, "and we finally came up with a flexible shooter that can change the angle of the shots so we can shoot from anywhere on the field. We changed many things, but the end product has been worth it."
And how are the needed changes made?
"The programmer and the builders have to work closely together," said Hailey Schmidt, the team's programmer. "We need to come to an agreement about what will be most effective for each of our specialties. Over time, we've added a lot of new sensors and different ways of approaching the challenge."
Some changes involved large amounts of patience during very time-consuming adjustments.
"At first, we had a program so the robot could follow a wall by reading how far away it was," Schmidt explained, "but the robot was redesigned and we changed to using a gyro to detect what angle it's facing so it can drive in a straight line."
When teams partner up, another set of standards becomes crucial. It's called "gracious professionalism."
"On the field," said Wilson, "you want to help each other out. All the teams are friends, so you want to communicate and discuss strategy with them to earn the most points possible."
Mentor Nilsen has a mechanical engineering degree from UCSD and works as a battalion chief for San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. He offers gentle suggestions and corrections as the students manipulate and adjust their robot.
"My older son was interested in robotics," he said as the students checked the progress of charging batteries on his garage workbench. "When he was in eighth grade and his mentor left, I took the team on. This year's team is special to me, not only having my younger son on the team, but having them all around and seeing how much they enjoy this."
Nilsen installed a lock box on his garage and provides keys to all team members, some of whom, such as Lee and Wilson, spend countless hours working even on weekends.
The team named their robot "The Rise of Hephaestus" based on the Greek God "who built the first robot," according to Wilson. "The name changed from 'Sons of Hephaestus' when girls returned to the team several years ago."
The competition is under the auspices of FIRST, an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization that began in 1989 and is based in Manchester, N.H.
Today it has grown to include programs for all ages from kindergarten to high school that globally involves over 460,000 students, 52,000 teams, 40,000 robots and 230,000 mentors, coaches, judges and volunteers in 85 countries.
Across the world, there are 3,400 teams with 85,000 participants at the grades 9-12 level.
The organization also offers $50 million in scholarships to more than 1,500 students.