GEEK WEEK – New age nerds are too cool for school

By on February 19, 2013

Nerd: One whose IQ exceeds his weight.

Remember high school? The Indian caste system has nothing on an American high school. A delicate social order worked out its way flawlessly every lunch period in the cafeteria. Don’t think your high school was cliquey? Try sitting at the wrong table. Table A was reserved for the jocks and cheerleaders, on down to Table D or E where the Screeches and Urkels quietly scarfed down their brown-bagged bologna on Wonder white sandwiches.

Forget all that, Poindexter. It’s now safe to come out of your locker. Everything’s changed. Don’t believe it? Three words: Big Bang Theory.


“There’s a paradigm shift; an undercurrent of all these super smart kids. And I think it’s one of the neatest things,” says Ethan Lobdell, who teaches high school math and science for Journeys School and coaches their robotics team. “I studied mathematics and science. In high school, the jocks were the kings and got all the attention. And they had a physical outlet. Now there is an outlet for these smart kids. Their intelligence is being tested and they are legitimized by these programs. They’re getting scholarships and grabbing this whole tech revolution by the horns. Smart kids can feel proud about themselves and shine.”

Journeys School teacher and Teton Gravity Robotics coach, Ethan Lobdell

Journeys School teacher and Teton Gravity Robotics coach, Ethan Lobdell

New programs abound now for brainiacs. Robotics clubs, in particular, offer a competitive setting for applied science skills that have college admissions officers frothing at the mouth and numerous tech companies ‘scouting’ beautiful minds as NBA scouts would a high school phenom baller.

“The amount of organizations out there that are trying to plug into this competition is astounding,” Lobdell says. “They want to be pulling the best of the best. Carnegie Mellon is one of the biggest institutions involved. Besides showcasing their smarts, robotics gives kids a chance to display tenacity and grit. Designs don’t work, pieces fall apart. You have to stick with it and show commitment. These kids can’t be quitters.”

But it goes beyond robotics. America is falling behind, especially in math and science. The education system as a whole has been given a government directive: Inspire kids to get involved in the sciences and eventually into the STEM fields.

“Robotics is an extension of STEM,” Sammie Smith says, referring to the field of study category Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics commonly known by its acronym. Smith is the career and technical education director at JHHS. “The message has been coming from the government for about two years now: We are behind the power curve compared to other nations. Here in the U.S. there are three million job openings that are unfilled because there are no qualified applicants in-country to fill them.”

High schools across the country have responded. Community colleges are buying in as well. STEM education is sometimes embedded in curriculum or featured as part of after-school opportunities. Thanks to a renewed initiative, intellectual capital in the U.S. is on the rebound and growing. Smith says colleges and universities are especially interested in students with engineering interest and experience … especially women.

“Engineering concept combines science math applications into a problem-solving nature,” Smith says. “As far as the gender breakdown, a lot of the competitive stuff like robotics tends to be more male-driven.”

Teton Gravity Robotics team member and senior, Melissa Slaughter

Teton Gravity Robotics team member and senior, Melissa Slaughter

The RoboBroncs have five women participating out of a total of 20. At Teton Science Schools, the breakdown is about 60:40, boys to girls, Lobdell says. The Slaughter sisters – Melissa and Michelle – build and drive robots together. “In the final rounds, my sister and I were the only girls driving,” Michelle says. The senior has been accepted at MIT and Cal Tech. She plans to pursue computer science or engineering.

According to the Census Bureau, women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, but hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Engineering fields are the most lopsided, dominated by 86 percent males.

Robot Wars

Colleges and universities are lining up to get their hands on students with extra-curricular activities like robotics on their resumes. Corporations and government agencies from Rockwell Collins to NASA are also showing eager involvement in programs like FIRST.

Dean Kamen (yes, the guy who invented the Segway) founded FIRST in 1989 as a way to, in his words, “transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated, and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” FIRST Tech Challenges (FTC) offer nationwide robotics competitions for ages 6 through 18. FIRST Robotics Challenges (FRC) are the advanced version for high school-level competitors.

Every year, FRC and FTC create a new challenge – a scenario and game that teams made up of 3 to 10 members take on by designing and building a robot that can accomplish the task. Last year, the Jackson Hole High School robotics team, called the RoboBroncs, built and taught “Archie” to shoot basketballs. The year before that, they built “Old Faithful.”

JHHS RoboBroncs show off robots to Wilson School students on Robot Day, February 13.

JHHS RoboBroncs show off robots to Wilson School students on Robot Day, February 13.

On February 13, a day declared “Robotics Day” by Mayor Mark Barron, the RoboBroncs celebrated by showcasing their latest creation to local elementary schools and residents of River Rock. The new bot, still awaiting a name, is designed to toss Frisbees and climb a tower for the FRC regional event called ULTIMATE ASCENT, held in Salt Lake City March 21-23. Winners of the FRC and FTC competitions move on to St. Louis for the world championships April 24-27.

Head programmer and senior Nick Pampe said last week, “We’ve got the Frisbee throwing down, just needs a few tweaks. The climbing talons are still in its prototype. This is our fourth year. Throughout the years we’ve tried different setups. This specific setup is called a kit-bot, it’s what FRC gives all the new rookie teams. We changed the wheels to a six-wheel setup and modified the way it’s powered a bit.”

Kathy Milburn coaches the team along with Gary Duquette. Milburn credited the valley’s mentor involvement as an important ingredient to the team’s success – they narrowly missed out on a trip to St. Louis last year. “We’ve had eight mechanical engineering mentors from around the valley spend one or two nights, sometimes more, working with the kids on the design. There is a lot of talent in our valley.”

The RoboBroncs design their bots, taking advantage of a state-of-art 3D printer. Fabrication is all done in the school shop with plasma cutters and T-slot.

The Journeys School team, called Teton Gravity Robotics for its close partnership with Teton Gravity Research, is in its fifth season. Already this year the team travelled to Montana for the FTC “Ring It Up!” competition, snaring first place and a ‘motivate award’ for team spirit and enthusiasm. The middle school also recently competed in the FIRST Lego League state tourney in Casper.

Caring over competition

Each competition features a short autonomous mode, where the robot is pre-programmed to carry out a task on its own. After that, team members called ‘drivers’ take control and guide the robot (think Mars rover without the 20-minute lag time) through the competition using joysticks or Xbox-type wireless controllers. Most teams use a version of virtual world software – often a simplified computer code language like LabVIEW by NI or RobotC – to do all their programming and communication.

Perhaps the most unique and inspirational aspect of a robotics competition is how non-competitive it really is. During contests, teams are often directed to swap robots for a round. Before competitions, teams share information on the Internet like crazy.

“Winning is one thing but sharing and nurturing is key,” Lobdell says. “FIRST promotes what they call gracious professionalism. Being good stewards and helping other teams is what it’s all about. Competitions are a place to have fun and be kind to each other and celebrate creativity.”

Smith, too, sees robotics competition as just one area where kids are learning to collaborate.

“Open source is a big deal when it comes to newer technology. It’s the growing trend in the Maker Movement,” Smith says. “It suggests getting feedback from other people. It’s really remarkable, the rate that it’s happening.”

Share and share alike is where it’s at with teenagers. Tapping the Internet, using social media or websites like and, is how young engineers engage in a lateral learning model from their peers.

Last year's RoboBronc bot, Archie, could shoot basketballs.

Last year’s RoboBronc bot, Archie, could shoot basketballs.

“Build prototypes. Test out your ideas before you waste your time!” posted members from the Journeys School after learning the hard way. Information and spare parts are swapped regularly via cyberspace, fostering an atmosphere of codependence and cooperation that shows up at competitions in the form of back-patting and hugging encouragement.

In fact, FIRST developers are very conscious of how close their organization is to Robot Wars, the popular TV series (1998-2004) that glorified sheet metal carnage, and how student participants could be prime candidates for future drone warfare.

“We are not allowed to do [Robot Wars],” Junior RoboBronc Ashley Potzernitz says. “They encourage cooperation; like an alliance.”

Lobdell agrees. “The kids are always taught to think conscientiously about the aspects of what they’re doing, particularly so they don’t go on to just develop drones or tanks.”

Geek Week

Out of thousands of competing teams, some three or four hundred will move on to the weeklong finals in St. Louis. The massive gathering takes up the entire Edward Jones Dome where the Rams play out their home football games. Black Eyed Peas played the ‘halftime show’ there last year.

The RoboBroncs are hoping to win big in Salt Lake and raise $15,000 from sponsors to support their trips. They are also looking for community support via Facebook (Jackson Hole RoboBroncs) where Potzernitz says they are shooting for 1,000 ‘likes.’

“We are all robot nerds and we love it,” Potzernitz declares.

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Newcastle egghead conquers nuclear fusion

Conrad Farnsworth, 18, from Newcastle, built a nuclear reactor in his parent's garage.

Conrad Farnsworth, 18, from Newcastle, built a nuclear reactor in his parent’s garage.

Outside of government-sponsored programs, maybe 60 individuals in the world have mastered nuclear fusion. One of them lives in Newcastle, Wyoming. He’s 18.

Conrad Far­­­nsworth began work on his reactor at the age of 16. He’s no relation to the man who created the very first one – Philo T. Farnsworth. Newcastle’s Farnsworth said he’s received support and encouragement from his parents and maybe the occasional, “Don’t blow up the house,” or “We don’t want to see anybody start losing their hair.” If they only knew what their boy has been cooking up in the shed.

Watch any YouTube video of Farnsworth’s before his current invention. Most of them feature the gangly teenager sniggering and running in slow motion from something that’s about to blow up. He’s grown up a lot since then. His latest contrivance makes a much bigger bang.

The plasma at the core of Farnsworth’s reactor reaches a temperature of 600 million degrees Fahrenheit. But it’s not the heat that’s the deadliest aspect of nuclear fusion. It’s the microwave-style radiation levels that could cook Farnsworth’s goose.

“The thing about radiation is it’s really nothing to fear. The media hypes it as something really dangerous like being exposed to anthrax,” Farnsworth says. “You’re exposed to quite a bit of radiation in everyday life, especially living higher than sea level. It’s not all that dangerous but you definitely don’t want to overexpose yourself. Implosion is a more real danger. A viewport collapse or crack would send charges ricocheting off the back of the chamber and heading out at Mach 2 toward you. So I’ve insulated the heck out of that.”

Genius blooms

Farnsworth remembers taking his toys apart as a kid. He always wanted to see the insides. He last had his IQ tested in sixth grade. He scored a 128. He’s long since left his parents behind, intellectually. “I try to explain to them what I’m working on but they don’t comprehend what I do,” he says.

What Farnsworth is doing, legally, using everyday part and supplies purchased off the Internet, is fusion – not to be confused with fission. Fission is splitting atoms, fusion is combining them. Nuclear fission is how most nuclear power plants run and the methodology behind nuclear bombs. Fusion is the process by which the sun generates energy. Fusion as a sustainable energy source is still in its infancy. What Farnsworth has created is not nearly efficient enough to provide power but it could be used for a wide variety of applications, including producing cancer-fighting isotopes, for example.

Cloud connections

Like many of his peers, Farnsworth turns to the I­nternet for advice. While most kids his age swap song lyrics and gamer tags, Farnsworth relies on the online community as a laboratory of ideas; a sort of ‘braincloud’ where users play equal role prodigy and protégé.

“You can post the mistakes you make. They can serve as a warning to others,” Farnsworth says. “Like when I first started, I purchased this vacuum pump. A day after I took it all apart I read something that said they are very precision-engineered and you shouldn’t take them apart. It’s a ‘pay it forward’ kind of thing. The online fusion community has been incredibly helpful.”

Physicist’s future

As impressive as Farnsworth’s accomplishments have been so far, they haven’t helped him land a job offer or a college acceptance letter.

“I was denied at MIT,” Farnsworth says. He had his heart set on the top-tier tech school. “You would think one of the most impressive things you could show a school is building your own reactor. All my friends who built reactors got referred to MIT. It’s surprising how much reactors don’t help you.”

Farnsworth has been doing some work through University of Michigan lately. He still hopes to catch the eye of MIT administrators one day. For now, he’ll have to settle on graduating high school where he finds most conventional learning a bit mundane. “I don’t have the attention span for most things. It’s more fun to learn something brand new and be a pioneer,” the high school senior says.

Farnsworth says his classmates have all been accepting and treat him the same even if they can’t hold a conversation with him. “Even at a young age, everyone has known me to be a truth-seeker or an inquisitive kind of person,” he says.

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