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Students build community through robotics engineering

Northeastern students in Nutrons 125, the university’s student-led robotics engineering team, may be the architects of the robots they build each year, but it’s not possible without collaborating with a score of tech savvy high school students.

Founded in 1998, Nutrons is part of FIRST, a worldwide robot competition in which teams not only design, build, and test robots, but also promote science and technology to younger students who might not have access to robot engineering and design opportunities.

For Northeastern students, the benefits to being a Nutron are many. They receive valuable hands-on experience building these robots, skills they in turn can apply in the classroom, on co-op, or in the engineering lab. But they also serve as mentors for their high school teammates and nurture their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math—known as the STEM fields.

“We try to have the high school students do as much they can,” explained team co-captain Christopher Hines, E’15.

The high school students, primarily from Revere High School, Brookline High School, and Boston Latin High School, come up with the design plan for the robot, based on specifications laid out by FIRST. They also assist Northeastern students in building and operating the robot.

“You spend the majority of the build season teaching others how to design and manufacture the robot,” said co-captain Christopher Hepburn, E’15. “Conveniently, the repetition of teaching others is a perfect way to improve your own skills. I’ve seen a major improvement in my ability to develop designs, generate computer-aided design drawings, and machine parts as a result of having to explain those concepts to younger students.”

Earlier this year, Nutrons received the Pine Tree District Chairman’s Award, which recognizes a team for its community outreach. “We try to do a lot with other teams and schools in the area that don’t have programs like this,” Hines said. “That’s what it’s really all about.”

Nutrons’ season officially starts in January, when FIRST releases the instructional video outlining the specifications the robots must meet and the various tasks they are expected to complete.

This year, the competitors were tasked with designed a robot that could throw a ball at a net, with teams scoring points based on where the ball landed. Teams had just six weeks to design and build the robot and, once the deadline has been reached, could only work with the robot during competition.

“From the beginning of January until February we are in the workshop in Richards Hall basically every day,” Hines said.

Nutron’s 2014 bot, named “Dark Matter”—which runs on 12-volt batteries, includes thousands of parts, and weighs about 120 pounds—fared well at a number of competitions this year, winning the Rhode Island District, Northeastern District, and the Pine Tree District events.

Nutrons also hosts an offseason competition at Matthews Arena called the Beantown Blitz, a friendly competition offering high schools students from more than 20 teams another opportunity to work with the robots.

Hines was part of FIRST in high school and chose to stay involved as a mentor when he enrolled at Northeastern. Now in his fifth year with the team, Hines said Nutrons allows him to explore robot engineering and design outside of the classroom.

“I’ve always had that engineering mentality to me,” Hines said.