When Joshua Robinson, 16, was a freshman in high school, he was "a regular teenager" having some trouble in school.
His family saw him struggling and thought of a way to motivate him. They knew his interest in robotics, and his uncle told him if he pulled his grades up, he would sign Robinson up for a robotics camp at Georgia Tech.
"I pulled my grades up from in the 50s to the 70s," Robinson said.
"It changed my life. I had an epiphany — I decided I wanted to have a robotics club at my school."
Now a junior at Gainesville High School, Robinson spent the last year and a half developing and promoting his idea. With the help of two advisors, math teacher Dave Head and physics teacher Nantheyyen Ramachandran, the 2011 school year made Robinson's dreams reality.
The Gainesville High Robotics Alliance, with a small but dedicated membership, is set to have its first competition on Oct. 29.
The team had six weeks to prepare for the Georgia's BEST Robotics competition. They were provided a box of materials from Southern Polytechnic University, but very little was pre-manufactured. Aside from metal components and the motor, the team had to do most of the work on its own.
"The kids had to manufacture everything for this competition," Head said.
The body of the robot is a large piece of plywood shaped as a triangle with the corners cut off. It has a PVC pipe arm attached to a mesh screen to pick up objects, two large rear wheels and a front wheel modeled after those on a shopping cart. The gears were first designed by laser-cut cardboard, and once perfected, were cut from plastic.
Freshman Jakim Johnson, 15, worked on the wheels and the arm. He originally hadn't intended to join the robotics alliance, but not-so-subtle hints from mentors and a friend got him involved.
"It's been fun and a challenge," he said. "You have to listen a lot. Being a freshman, you don't know a lot of the stuff."
The competition they are preparing for is modeled after bugs escaping from an enclosure. The robots must pick up "bugs" — which in this case might be cylinders filled with beans — and steer them over and around obstacles such as steps, and moving PVC pipes to put the bugs back where they came from, Head said.
Ramachandran said the robot's dimensions must be 24 inches wide, 24 inches long and 24 inches high. In essence, the team has to build a robot to fit in a box, but think outside the box to make it work.
"We've been working with North Forsyth, some other schools that already have established programs," Head said. "They've already got a practice field built.
They've been in competitions for 10 years or so, so they understand the growing pains."
But the growing pains for this group are few. With the support of the Gainesville City Schools Board, a grant from Siemens Industry and the other 16 local groups and businesses Robinson gave presentations to, the group has gathered funding and garnered a reputation.
And they're not done yet.
"This is like the incubation test," Robinson said. "I hope when I come back in five years they are teaching a class and have a workshop and a lot of competitions. I want this to trickle down to the middle school and even the elementary school."
With the connection to science, math and engineering, the two advisors think that's possible.
"It fits in with the standards of math and science," Head said. "The classroom gives you the theoretical. Here, they can put their theories into action."
Ramachandran said students are getting hands-on experience learning exactly why the diameter of a wheel matters and why the front of a vehicle should balance the back.
Robinson said robotics will make younger kids more enthusiastic about these subjects because they'll have physical things to touch.
Aside from the academic information, he said having the alliance will teach students teamwork and job skills, such as following rules and creating robots to client specifications.
Robinson hopes the skills he learns take him to MIT, or at least to Georgia Tech and Southern Polytechnic for a degree in robotic engineering.
Quoting a robotics motto, he said, "It is the hardest fun you will ever have. I truly believe that. "I want to bring robotics to everyone in Gainesville."