Portland Science Center puts South Portland High School robots in the spotlight

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Robots built by the South Portland High School robotics team are among interactive exhibits opening Friday at the Portland Science Center.

“Space: A Journey to Our Future” tracks the history and future trajectory of space travel. The installation includes interactive tools to illustrate space travel and simulated activities to better illustrate the sensation of traveling in space.

Among them is a three-person centrifuge that mimics the G-force of hurtling away from Earth in a spacecraft.

The second installation, “Robot Zoo,” offers children hands-on opportunities to engage with animal- and insect-like robots. Included in the exhibit are two functional robots built in the past few years by Riot Crew 58, the team of about 20 South Portland students.

The oldest robot on display, Betty White, built by the team in 2012, was designed to shoot small basketballs into a hoop and can be controlled with a series of up, down and side-to-side buttons. Betty won the Granite State regional competition, and made it to the national competition in St. Louis, Missouri.

This is the first time the robotics team has had its work displayed in a museum setting, head coach Sean Manning said Wednesday at the science center.

Allowing children to see and control the robots is exciting, Gavin Damian-Loring, a senior on the team, said Wednesday morning.

Damian-Loring, who joined Riot Crew 58 last year, said it’s very gratifying to think about “giving these kids the opportunity to do what I never could do.”

Being a part of a robotics team “is really an amazing experience that I think everyone should have the opportunity to do,” he said.

Alec Hewitt, also a senior member of the robotics team, said Wednesday that it is really meaningful “to have people look at (the robots) and to appreciate them.”

The South Portland club, founded 21 years ago, was one of the first in the state, and the 58th team internationally (which is where the number comes from in the team’s name).

There are now 24 robotics teams in the state, and more than 3,000 around the world.

Each year, the high school team has six weeks to build a new robot that conforms to guidelines for that year’s competition, Hewitt said.

“There are a lot of different aspects,” Damian-Loring said. Each team member plays a different role, from budgeting and fundraising to programming, which is Hewitt’s forte.

“You can learn a lot of things from what the program has to offer,” said Damian-Loring. He said he plans to pursue engineering in college, in part because of his time spent on the robotics team.

“All science fields are increasingly tied together,” R.P. Hale, a senior educator at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, New Hampshire, said at the science center Wednesday.

Exhibits like these are inspiring to young people because they’re “more interactive,” he said, adding that viewing things in a glass case “isn’t the focus anymore.”

While there are still displays in glass cases at the exhibit – tiles from the 1981 Columbia space shuttle, a moon rock and the spacesuit astronaut Steve Hawley wore during the 1986 Columbia shuttle mission, to name a few – there are far more hands-on activities.

Visitors can see a replica of the inside of a space shuttle, complete with packaged space food and a small kitchen that can be walked through; a design-your-own-space craft kiosk; and scales that tell what one’s weight would be on the moon and on Mars.

“The idea is to get students inspired to go into the sciences,” Hale said.

As much as most people don’t want to hear it, he added, the international language of science is math.

When young people have the opportunity to engage with the end result of mathematical programming, such as interacting with robots or exploring space in a hands-on way, “this, in turn, gets more interested participants in the next generation,” he said.

“In the sciences,” Hale said, “the worst thing we could do is turn in on ourselves.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Gavin Damian-Loring, 17, a member of the Riot Crew 58 robotics team and a senior at South Portland High School, holds the control panel for the robot, Betty White, which was built by high school students in 2012. Both Betty and a second robot, Godard, will be on interactive display at the Portland Science Center through May.

“Robot Zoo” and “Space: A Journey to Our Future” open Friday, Jan. 29, at the Portland Science Center, 68 Commercial St. Pictured is a fuel cell from an Apollo space mission.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.
  • beachmom2

    Nice job Riot Crew! Gavin has been on the team for more like 4 years I think.