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Robots and gaming on the timetable at hi-tech school

27 April 10 08:00 GMT

By Andrew Webb
Technology reporter, BBC News

The moment you walk into San Diego's High Tech High you realise this is a school unlike most others.

Teenagers are writing video games, filming sketches, using heavy duty power tools to build a boat - and then there are the robots.

In pride of place is Daisy May, a waist-high machine that scuttles around, scooping balls off the ground and projecting them into a bin.

"The way she skids replicates the way she would move in the semi-weightless conditions on the moon," said one of her designers and senior year student, RJ Sheperd.

The high level of motivation and professionalism among many of the students is striking. "Let me introduce you to our Public Relations Director", said RJ proudly, as though this was a major corporation's high-flying spin doctor.

Robot runner-up

In fact, she is also a senior year student, but with a similar air of authority.

They were among a group of pupils that entered Daisy May into the First Robotics Competition for students around the world. The robot reached the semi-finals.

Both students were working on their latest entry in the annual championship: a robot that played soccer around an obstacle course.

This was "intersession" week, when teachers set up specialist projects that reflect their own personal interests.

But even during more routine times, life at High Tech High is a break from the norm.

The school runs on a system of instructors and mentors, plucked from relevant industries.

An example is Cris Fitch, who comes to High Tech High Media Arts campus twice a week to help students develop robotic engineering skills. In a former life he was the chief technical officer for web translation site Babel Fish.

Computerised chopper

He helped students design a helicopter flown entirely by computer. It has no remote control for humans to operate.

Instead, the teenaged inventors wrote computer code to regulate its complex flight and balance mechanism.

One, Jake Neighbors, explained how its programming enabled it to train itself to balance over a series of flight trials.

"We use calculus to make the helicopter hover," he said. "We were not taught calculus in class... so we had to completely learn it by ourselves without the teacher."

Classmate Eric Harmatz said: "We were discovering the tools of calculus; having the goals of why we needed it. So that's why project-based learning works so well for us."

The commitment shown by students may give the appearance that only the smartest need apply. In fact, local education policy requires the school to take children of all abilities.

Funding comes from local government and benefactors, including the Bill Gates Foundation.

Alternative schooling

The aim is for project-based courses to foster a self-starting ethos among those who study there.

A question that immediately springs to mind is: what is missed off the curriculum to make way for inventing high speed drag cars or creating a surreal film noir love story?

Robotics and engineering instructor David Berggren scoffed at any suggestion that the courses leave students with an incomplete education.

"Certainly they learn a lot designing robots... it's using technology to really hook kids in."

In some cases this also extends to their proposed career choices.

RJ is positive that he wants to continue his electronic engineering work in one of California's many technology firms.

Others are more circumspect.

Allie Sandoval helped build the Betabot, a swimming "mechanoid" that shows its emotions when prodded or shaken.

Despite learning programming skills, she sees this as an interesting project, but not something she will devote her life to.

"I enjoy it so I will probably just do it as a hobby," she said.

Video gaming

Some of the video game writing students share similar views.

The room was a hive of silent activity.

In hushed tones, instructor Neil McCurdy described how he locked the door at lunchtime and the end of the day to ensure pupils ate and drank, rather than stay glued to their seats.

Some students used software that Mr McCurdy had adapted from the Java programming language.

Others wrote their own games with Star Logo TNG, a free game development tool.

One of his pupils, Thaddeus Lewis, adapted the 80's game Pac-Man into a 3D version.

Despite his obvious skills, he does not see this as a future career.

Gaming, he insists, is just something to fall back on. Instead, he aims to be a dentist.

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