Gurnee Team Prepares for Robotics Competition

GURNEE – Steven Margis' basement in his Gurnee home transforms into a lab each week when Dynamics Signals Team 7351 gathers to build a robot that will be able to pick up blocks and put them in a basket, raise a flag and compete against others at a FIRST Tech Challenge qualifying tournament Jan. 25.

"We are proud to be the first FIRST Tech Challenge team ever from Gurnee," Margis said. His FTC team is at the middle–school level, while Warren Township High School's 60–member Robotics Club participates in FIRST Robotics Competition each year. Margis hopes to form an FTC developmental program at Woodland Middle School.

FIRST is a national organization that works to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in mentor–based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well–rounded life capabilities, including self–confidence, communication and leadership.

"What I really like is that statistics show that there are a lot of scholarships out there for kids who go through this program," Margis said. "There is a high demand [for professionals] in technology careers." The team started with Margis and Steven Kuscsik and their sons Kevin Margis and Alex Kuscsik, and grew when the boys invited their friends Leo Forney and Fritz Clark. They're on a "quest from Edison to Einstein as we seek to establish a sustainable program for Gurnee kids throughout the FIRST program continuum," Steven Margis said.

On Nov. 6, the four team members and two coaches met to work on building an arm capable of grasping a horizontal pole 32 inches off the ground and pulling the robot up.

The Dynamics Signals team named their basement lab Edison Field as a reference to the FIRST Championship's Einstein Field. A bust of Edison decorates the space, which has an open area to practice maneuvering the robot. Alex Kuscsik said being on the team has made him closer with his dad, and he wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

"We can build whatever we want and see if it works –- stuff no one has ever come up with," he said. He worked with Forney to develop an arm out of a metal piece typically used to slide drawers.

"We need it to extend, and then we need something to hook and grab the bar," he told Forney. Forney came up for the idea by Google–searching parts companies use for a similar purpose.

Meanwhile, Kevin Margis and Fritz Clark, Woodland seventh–graders, were working on the gears to spring the arm.

Kevin Margis said he's interested in the programming side of engineering, and programmed his bedroom door to open by sensor. He changed it slightly when his dog kept setting it off, he said.

Steven Margis said that as someone who came of age at the beginning of the video game and personal computer era, it's amazing to see middle–schoolers sitting at a computer, rendering a robot in 3D to figure out what they should build.

"It's amazing to see them using professional grade software at age 12," he said. Before they became an FTC team, Steven Margis and his son Kevin competed in FIRST LEGO League, building robots out of LEGOs.

Steven Margis said he's seen his son Kevin's confidence increase. "He was normally very reserved, but toward the end of the [FLL] season, he really wanted to answer judges' questions and couldn't contain his enthusiasm." At the Jan. 25 competition, students will compete head–to–head using a sports model. In pairs, teams are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete against other teams on a 12–by–12–foot field.

Robots are built from a reusable platform and teams can choose from two programming languages. Teams are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition, as well as community outreach, design, and other real–world accomplishments, Steven Margis said.

Many of the robots' parts are available in a kit from FIRST, but additional parts are bought online using funds from sponsors such as Underwriters Laboratories, where Steven Margis is director of certification programs.

The Dynamics Signals team stays connected to other teams in the area.

"[In November] we had mentoring sessions with FTC Teams in Highland Park and Elgin," he said. "Each site has a team that made last years' world championships. We learned about FTC firsthand at the season's first Block Party Scrimmage. We also were treated to an 'engineering' exchange and tour with staff at Arens in Arlington Heights."

Follow the team's happenings at www.7351.us. For information on FIRST,