The Springside Chestnut Hill Academy robotics team.


by Jeffrey Ng

Watching robots compete is interesting, but watching robots play 3-on-3 basketball? “Intense,” “exciting” and “dramatic” are just some of the words that come to mind. And it will be happening right here in Chestnut Hill this week on March 9 to 10, when Springside Chestnut Hill Academy will host the city’s only FIRST Robotics District event.

After six weeks of late nights and weekends spent prototyping, building and testing, the SCH Vulcan Robotics team is ready to compete in this year’s FIRST Robotics competition, “Rebound Rumble,” based on the game of basketball.

This won’t be an easy task: The best robots will have to shoot balls into a basket from more than 30 feet away and cooperate with other teams’ robots to balance on a teeter-totter ramp at the end of the match.

One distinguishing feature of this year’s robot, named the Vulcan Viper for its two mechanical arms that reach out like fangs, is its versatility. Peter Randall, SCH engineering and robotics department chair and mentor, says this versatility “allows it to shoot baskets from anywhere on the field.”

To assist in targeting, an onboard camera enables the Viper to automatically adjust the trajectory of its shooting mechanism to accommodate its distance from the basket. Its multi-brush pickup system is also versatile, allowing it to pick up balls quickly and in tight spaces.

Unlike other teams’ robots, the Viper has been built “long and wide” to give it a low center of gravity and less probability of tipping – especially important when it tries to balance on a teetering ramp for extra points. To complete the design, the SCH team has installed a secret device, called “the Charminator,” which improves consistency in shooting by testing the density of each ball and adjusting the trajectory accordingly.

The team believes this design will be competitive enough to get it through the district and regional competitions and on to the World Championships in St. Louis this April.

One of the district events will take place this Friday and Saturday at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, when 38 area robotics teams, representing more than 1,000 students, will be competing. Twice as many competition games will take place during this event as compared to previous years, which will make for what our mentors have described as an “intense, high-energy” experience.

Kids from first grade and above are welcome to attend the event and experience what engineering and 21st century learning is all about in an easy-to-understand and entertaining context. After all, who doesn’t understand basketball?

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy FIRST District Competition will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on March 9 and 10 at the school’s Vare Field House on the Cherokee Campus (8000 Cherokee St., in Chestnut Hill). The public is welcome. Persons who would like to volunteer, sponsor the team, or make a donation, should contact Diane Drinker or Peter Randall and visit the team’s website at

Jeffrey Ng is a member of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s Class of 2012.

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