Cardinal Gibbons robotics team on a roll with three patent applications

sbarr@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2013 

— Take a good look at U.S. Patent Application #20130006444, and you’ll spot a familiar name: Cardinal Gibbons High School.

The application details the design of a folding forklift, just one of the innovations the school’s robotics team has dreamed up, tested and built in recent years.

The published patent application is the first for the Purple Gears, who work after school to solve robotics puzzles and who participate in robotics competitions throughout the year. They’ve submitted a second application and were putting the finishing touches on a third earlier this month.

Coach John Toebes, who helped start the team more than five years ago when his daughter attended Gibbons, said applying for the patents is a way to teach students about how their ideas fit into the bigger scientific world.

“It’s teaching the kids not just how to innovate but to document it and teach other people how to do it,” he said.

The students regularly make discoveries – patentable or not – as they build robots which can complete specific tasks in the competitions. The students work on their robots for months after school, everything from learning computer design programs, milling the parts, building the robot and trouble-shooting at each step.

“I like the challenge of it and working with the team to solve problems,” 10th-grader Austin Schick said.

This year, as part of the FIRST Tech Challenge, the Cardinal Gibbons team has to design and build a robot that collects and distributes plastic blocks at specific points, raises the team’s flag on a flagpole and raises itself off the ground using a pull-up bar. There’s a long list of rules about how many parts the robot can have and how it completes its tasks.

The school will host two dozen teams at the FTC East Regional competition Jan. 25.

While working to build their robots, the team members often have to come up with novel ways to solve problems, which is how they arrived at the idea that became their first patent application. In that year’s problem, the robot had to fit in an 18-inch cube but be able to raise a baton several inches higher than that. Through trial and error, they arrived at a version of their foldable forklift that could do the job.

Similarly, while they’ve designed other robots through the years, they’ve come up with ideas for their second and third patent applications, a custom treaded wheel and a claw mechanism that picks up rings.

Aaron Ruff, the team’s captain and a senior at Gibbons, said he never had considered math or science his strongest subjects, but he’s learned since joining the Purple Gears his sophomore year that everyone had something to offer when problem solving.

“It gives you a new way of thinking,” he said.

Barr: 919-836-4952

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