Team to participate in event at end of April

Thursday, February 16, 2006

ThisWeek Staff Writer

If a team of Westerville students has its way, the future will be filled with cars that run on natural gas and have plenty of places to refuel.

And they're also working toward a closer goal: winning the FIRST LEGO League World Tournament in Atlanta April 26-28.

The home-schooled students, in grades 4 to 9, will compete in the world championship after taking first place, known as the Directors Award, at the state tournament at Wright State University in January, where they beat 47 other teams from across the state.

The 10 students on Westerville's MindStorm Troopers team built a robot that had to complete a series of missions during the state tourney, said Michael Vawter, 14, a member of the team.

The robot is made of LEGO building blocks and must navigate a table to complete the tasks, Michael Vawter said.

One-quarter of the team's score came from how well the robot completed the missions. The remaining three-quarters of the score accounted, equally, for teamwork, the robot's design and a research project, he said.

Some of the robot's missions included fixing a pipeline, releasing a dolphin from a sling, putting flags on a board, getting to the top of a research vessel -- also made of LEGOs -- to deploy a LEGO submarine off the side and bringing archeological artifacts back to the base.

"You send it on separate missions to accomplish tasks," he said.

For the research project, the team was to study the ocean and a resource, then come up with an alternative for that resource, said Gail Vawter, Michael's mother and a leader of the team.

The team chose oil as a resource and selected natural gas as the alternative.

"Because we're landlocked Ohioans, we really can't go to the ocean and save it from oil spills," Gail Vawter said. The students decided to contact lawmakers about putting together a plan to make natural gas a larger part of people's lives.

Several of the students had taken a class where they learned to write bills and practiced presenting them, so in December, the team drafted a bill that state Rep. Jim Trakas (R-Independence) will present to the Ohio House of Representatives. The bill encourages the construction of natural gas fueling stations and the purchase of natural gas vehicles.

The bill "would allow people tax incentives to buy these cars," Gail Vawter said, and would give companies a discount to build them.

Michael Vawter said Trakas told the team it likely would take a year for the bill to go through the process of becoming law.

Natural gas cars can be filled up at home, Gail Vawter said, but it takes eight hours to do so and the car can travel only about 100 miles before needing to refuel.

"So in that sense, we need more fueling stations in Ohio or we'll get stranded," she said.

The group met with Trakas in January and last week traveled to Clean Fuels Ohio, which is housed at The Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research. There, they listened to CleanFuel's executive director, Sam Spofforth, and took a tour of the facilities.

"Our goal is to reduce our nation's dependence on petroleum fuels," Spofforth told the team. "We're working on a lot of alternatives right now."

He said Clean Fuels works with universities and companies such as FedEx that have large delivery fleets to help them make the transition from petroleum fuels to other types of fuel.

The organization also takes a "hard look" at the economics and logistics of "how to take an area and have fleets transition to natural gas," he said.

Clean Fuels is working with the Columbus Airport Authority in the hopes the airport will obtain compressed natural gas shuttles and develop a compressed natural gas filling station near the airport, he said.

Clean Fuels also is working toward seeing more fueling stations built in the northeast Columbus metro area.

"We've got some free labor here," said Edward Vawter, Michael's father, offering the team's help in Clean Ohio's cause. Dr. Ahmed Soliman, industrial director of CAR and past president of Clean Fuels, took the students on a tour of the 35,000-square-foot facilities.

The tour included the garage that houses the world's fastest electric car.

Built by OSU undergraduates in a variety of majors between 2000 and 2003, the Buckeye Bullet set a record of nearly 315 miles per hour on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. It can reach speeds of up to 321 miles per hour.

"One of the cool things about this, you guys, was this was not done by pros," said Erika Wiggins, CAR's outreach and development coordinator.

Soliman told the students CAR also is working on hybrid electric garbage trucks -- "more efficient, less noise," he said -- and on intelligent transportation: "cars that drive themselves."

In addition to Michael Vawter, the team also includes his sister, Michelle, Sophia Gebert, Joseph Gebert, Timothy Webb, Laura Webb, Jennifer Geiger, Cassandra Geiger, Grant Geiger and Mark David Wright.

The MindStorm Troopers team has competed at the FIRST LEGO League tournaments for three years. The FLL is an international research and robotics team with the goal of using hands-on experimentation and real-world projects to inspire students in the areas of science and technology, according to a press release.

It will cost the Westerville team $10,000 to compete in Atlanta, so it is seeking sponsors to help.

CAR has agreed to give a matching donation of up to $1,000 for each donation the team receives toward its world championship fund.

Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation can send it to:

MindStorm Troopers World Championship Fund, in care of Educational Robotics of Central Ohio, 6550 Bishop Road, Centerburg, Ohio 43011.