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Local students build robots, make big (Shock)waves

Team of coaches, mentors boosts Glencoe High School robitics team

COURTESY PHOTO: TEAM SHOCKWAVE - A handful of team Shockwaves student members stand with their robot, flanked by coaches/mentors Jean Tenca (far left) and Chris Steiner (far right). From football to chess club to band and choir, students have a wide range of after-school activities to choose from.

At Glencoe High School, however, there is one that stands apart from the rest.

For the past four years, students in the school’s robotics club have been building and designing some incredible machines. They've won robotics competitions across the country and made a name for GHS as host to one of the best high school robotics programs in the world.

Officially known as Team No. 4488, but better known locally as “Shockwave,” the team is part of FIRST, an international program that has been challenging students with robotics competitions for nearly three decades, promoting technology, math and engineering to students of all grade levels.

Through FIRST — which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — clubs build specialized robots designed to complete tasks, then go head-to-head to see whose is the best bot around.HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - In one of its first meetings of the 2016-2017 season, team Shockwaves coaches and mentors laid out the groundrules and basic expectations.

Formed in 2012 by Glencoe math and engineering teacher Chris Steiner and the Tenca family, who had previously formed a robotics team at Westview High School in Beaverton, Shockwave has made it to the robotics World Championships twice, bringing home big wins, including a silver medal finish in 2014.

To get there, Shockwave's team of students have relied on the tutelage and advice of their mentors — 14 devoted industry professionals who donate thousands of hours every year to guide the team toward its ultimate goal: The annual FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis, where 900 teams from 39 countries pit their robots against each other during a four-day springtime competition.

"It is a unique experience within the FIRST program that we can partner high school students with professionals in their field," said Jean Tenca, Shockwave's head mentor and a senior research and development engineer at Synopsys Inc., an electronics design company in Hillsboro. "One of the main objectives of the FIRST program is to establish that partnership …(and) allow the students to work with the professionals and see first-hand what it's like to be in that engineering environment."

The program is meant to prepare students for careers in tech or engineering fields and helps them to become well-rounded contributors to society, said Steiner. To date, about 50 members of Shockwave have graduated since the program began. Of those, more than three-quarters have gone on to study and/or work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

"This type of experience you cannot even find during the first years at college level," said Alexandre Tenca, Shockwave mentor and principal engineer at Synopsys. "In the first years of mechanical engineering in college, you’re not going to be doing these kinds of projects."

Being successful doesn’t always come from competitions, said Shockwave Technical Coach Williane Tenca. It's about teaching students the skills they need to be successful, such as leadership, public speaking and gracious professionalism.

"We always try to be very careful with that drive to win," Jean explained.

"We measure success in a different way," he said. "What we expect of our mentors is that desire to work with the students on the same level — teaching them, expecting them to come through and deliver, but not just managing them.

"(A mentor) works through problems with the students. And the cool thing about that is how it ties in with what the students are learning at school and how that will apply to their careers."

Building the backbone

COURTESY PHOTO: TEAM SHOCKWAVE - Lead Mentor Alexandre Tenca works on the robot ball shooter system with Rachel Simedru (right).To become a mentor for Shockwave, Williane said, volunteers need to work side by side with students — teaching and guiding them for hours as the team designs, builds and competes with its robots over the school year.

"(Mentors) bring a social influence that teachers and parents don't," Steiner explained. "Students learn from a lot of different people; but when the mentors come in, they're showing kids how to be professional. It's a new adult in the student's life. They don't respond to the mentors in the same way that they do for someone as familiar as their parents or as familiar as their teacher. It's different. It's a little bit more formal. The kids realize this is real — this is the real world — and they respond differently."

Ultimately, Steiner and the Tencas hope the mentors encourage the students to ask their own questions and talk things out as a team, rather than be led by a mentor.

"More often than not, we guide them through questions more than provide answers," Jean said. "Students don't always see the full picture, so we need to ask questions to get them to see that for themselves and realize that there are pitfalls in the design. But the cool thing is that the kids are all bright enough that if you ask the right questions, eventually they're going to get there — or they'll even find something that we didn't think of."

And they want to see the mentors try to discuss ideas without influencing the students, Jean said, and will even have mentor-only meetings to work out brewing disagreements.

"The way we do things at Shockwave is something we're proud of," Alexandre said.

Williane said mentors are careful not to tarnish the students' originality. COURTESY PHOTO: TEAM SHOCKWAVE - Space is tight when designing the electrical board, so the placement of each component on the robot needs to be planned out and evaluated, said Jean Tenca.

They'll never come right out and tell the students they're developing a terrible idea, "unless what they're doing is going to explode," Williane said.

Jean said that most of the Shockwave students seem appreciative of that hands-on/hands-off approach.

"As mentors, we're the rolling knowledge from year to year," Jean said.

"We're the backbone," Alexandre added. "And I believe we've changed the way (the students) think about technical or business (programs), and how life should be after high school. They didn't have a vision. But then, as part of the team, they were motivated to move forward."

By Travis Loose
Reporter, Hillsboro Tribune
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