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February 22, 2013

Highland robotics team makes healthy changes

Team Robohawk members take a break from the lab to play Frisbee.
By Charles Williamson

Highland School’s robotics team, Team Robohawk, is making a lifestyle change.

Bottled water, fruit, string cheese and hearty chicken chili have replaced the high-calorie, caffeine-laden, sugar-filled soda, candy, fast food and coffee drinks that have been a mainstay of the team since its inception four years ago. The entire team now takes exercise breaks before lunch each Saturday and throughout the day to play Ultimate Frisbee and get outside for fresh air.

The very nature of the robotics build season is intense and deadline-driven. Team members must juggle full academic schedules, sports, play practice and other extracurricular activities in addition to long days in the robotics lab, with the same stresses and time constraints we face as adults. The goal of this new body/mind initiative is to get team members to start considering the impact of their lifestyle choices and perhaps adapt new life long habits of healthy eating and regular exercise that will take them into a healthy, vibrant adult hood.

Team Robohawk is a member of the FIRST Robotics League, an international program in which students, grades 8 to 12, design, build and compete with robots in regional contests across the country. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the epitome of experiential learning. Team members get hands on experience in engineering, physics, math and computer programming – opportunities no classroom can offer.

The robots are built by the teams over a period of six weeks. With the help of adult volunteer mentors with expertise in physics, mechanical, electrical and computers software, teams design robot to fit certain guidelines and restrictions for each annual competition. This year’s competition involves throwing Frisbees into goals, and climbing a three-step pyramid – a robotic version of Ultimate Frisbee called Ultimate Ascent.

“Over the last couple years, I have watched team members subsist on caffeine, fast food and sugary snacks,” parent Lisa Mulford says. “Coupled with long days in the lab — 12-hour days are not uncommon — only to leave long enough to hit the closest fast food shop, drove me crazy. Our bodies are designed to move, and it is proven that complex carbs and protein give our bodies and our minds the endurance to stay focused for hours on end. I think it is critical that our youth learn these habits now instead of later in life when it is much harder or too late.”

Just as adults struggle to resist a quick, sugar snack while moving through a hectic schedule, kids these days are struggling with a similarly hectic schedule, and the usual urges to eat a quick snack. Many of the team members are on other sports or academic teams, and this can compound an already busy schedule. Rushing back and forth, the easy meal often feels like the only option.

To the ball rolling, Patti Bounds, Highland School cross country coach, professional fitness trainer and parent, was asked to take on the challenge – and it was a challenge.

“There was quite a bit of push-back at first,” Ms. Bounds says. “I think the biggest fear is that they were going to lose build time and be required to go on long runs and intense sessions of core work. My obstacle has been to get the message across that small changes can make big differences and balancing the treats with the healthy can actually increase their productivity, so the time they felt they lost on the Frisbee field is easily made up with bright alert minds that can take on longer hours and be more productive.”

More than one-third of American children and adolescents are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Correcting this earlier in life significantly reduces long-term health risks, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Efforts like Team Robohawk’s health initiative are exactly the sort of program mentioned on the CDC’s Childhood Obesity Facts website. Furthermore, this program embodies the confidence part of the team’s motto, “Respect Others, Believe in Ourselves, Honor Achieved With Knowledge.”

Under Ms. Bounds’ guidance, Team Robohawk parents provide all the food and drink for the team. This year, the parents have shifted from soda to water, a simple way to cut calories from any diet. Apples, oranges, bananas and string cheese are provided. Fruits make great snacks, while miniature candy bars don’t. This is not to say that cookies and brownies have entirely left the building, but are now integrated into a balanced diet and lifestyle. Treats now include dark chocolate and pumpkin muffins.

“I think we are on the right path,” says Team Robohawk Coach Kevin Handel, a physics teacher and runner. “In the past, down time meant sitting in front of a computer playing a video game; now the members go outside and walk or play Frisbee and I often hear how shocked the kids are that the healthy food is really good.”

The team spends two afternoons a week and the majority of each weekend of the “build season” in Highland’s Robotics Lab. The build season is only six weeks long, which doesn’t leave much time for regular exercise while designing and constructing a 120-pound robot that must accurately shoot Frisbees 45 feet or more, and then climb a jungle gym.

Even so, teammates are ducking outside for a quick round of Frisbee tossing during the inevitable lag periods between rushes. Some days, the kids are joined outside by Scout, an old English sheepdog mix, who loves catching Frisbees. Once back, the students are more focused and ready to face the next task.

While a basketball player can practice all fall for the spring season, FIRST Robotics Competition teams are only given the new challenge on the first Saturday of January. The build season lasts for the next six weeks. During these six weeks, the team must design, program, build, and practice with their robot before sealing it away for their competition.

During the competition, each team will have limited time to repair or replace parts needed, but they are not permitted to practice the challenges once the build season is over. Thus, the teams spend longer and longer hours in the lab as the build season winds down. A sugary snack can make you feel briefly energized, but so can a quick jog, or a Frisbee-tossing, brain-storming session, according to a recent book, “Your Food Is Fooling You,” by David Kessler. Eating healthy and exercising regularly can keep the mind active and focused in the face of such stress.

Expanding the example of the hypothetical basketball player, he or she will likely burn more calories during an average practice than most members of a robotics team will burn during a meeting. The programmers are not running up and down a court, they are in front of a computer, working on a vital part of the machine. The build team may be more active, but even carpentry and machining is not nearly the same as sustained aerobic exercise. Fitting even twenty minutes of exercise into a busy day may not seem like much, but can have a measurable effect on energy levels, and the waistline.

The team has quickly adapted to this new paradigm of snack foods, healthy meals, drinking water, and regular breaks for running around just being kids. Hopefully, this attitude shift will instill lifelong healthy habits for both the mind and body for the whole team – students, mentors, and parents.
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