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Altair Software Helps Students Reshape Their Robots and Their Lives

Team Faculty contact:
Maggie Thorleifson
Jackson High School
Tel.: +1.425.385.7000

Team Mentor contact:
Brian Gattman
The Boeing Company
Tel.: +1.425.342.6710

Altair Company contact:
Michael J. Kidder
Altair Engineering, Inc.
Tel.: +1.248.614.2400, ext. 269

Seattle-area high-schoolers and Everett Public School students enter FIRST Robotics competition and win new social skills, inspiration

Troy, MI, March 20, 2009 – Fifteen students at a Seattle-area high school are using Altair Engineering’s OptiStruct software to help build robots for the national FIRST Robotics competition; but, to their amazement, the real prizes they have won have been improved social skills, a passion for teamwork and a newfound love of engineering.

The team from Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Wash., worked with their career technical education instructor Maggie Thorleifson, along with Boeing engineer Brian Gattman and four other mentors, to learn about robotics and engineering from scratch. Over a period of six weeks they absorbed information about motors and structures and constructed the robot they will enter in the regional competition this month as part of the Lunacy games, sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is an annual international competition designed to build science, engineering and technology skills that inspire innovation and foster well-rounded life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication and leadership.

Life-Altering Results
At Jackson High School, which joined the FIRST competition for the first time this year, these goals were realized beyond all expectations, with sometimes life-altering results. Whatever the outcome of the first round of competition March 26-28 in Everett, Wash., Jackson team members already have emerged as big winners from their experience.

“The entire robotics experience completely and totally changed my life,” declared Monica Ilich, a junior at Jackson. “My stepdad and I have become even closer because he’s so supportive of the program. I can think faster and understand concepts better so my classes are better. The whole teamwork thing has been amazing. I used to be a loner and now work with a team. I’ve made so many new friends who I never thought in a million years that I would be friends with.”

Similarly, junior Bryan Kim reports, “The club has made my social skills better. I used to be quiet, but now I’m better at talking with people. In classes, I’m more of a leader, trying to help other people.”

The FIRST Robotics experience has developed other, less anticipated skills in the students as well. Kymberly Featherkile, mother of team member Arwen Reeves, reported, “Arwen has gotten so much out of the experience, and she’s really looking at her future career choices differently. And she learned to use power tools! How cool is that?”

Better grades
For others, the FIRST Robotics experience contributed to dramatic changes in their school work. “Overall, I’ve learned so much,” said sophomore Christian Bundschu. “Programming, engineering, mathematics—most of it I didn’t know. I’m in a geometry class and an average student. Since participating in this program, though, I’m getting way better grades in math class now.”

Kartik Rishi, a junior, had been an AP physics student. But he said, “Robotics taught me the integration of all the math techniques and physics. I learned how motors work and how to apply them in a robot. It was all interconnected. My grades have been going up and teachers are amazed at how I’m able to derive equations and understand how physics works. And I know that younger team members in lower-level math classes were learning way beyond what they were supposed to be learning—and actually getting it—because of our team.”

“As I learned how FIRST Robotics uses computer programming, math and engineering,” Thorleifson said, “and how kids get to experience these applications—and the fact that judging includes such elements as ‘gracious professionalism’ and ‘team spirit’—I thought, how could I not give kids at my school this opportunity? The kids are talking about how much fun math is because of this. I’ll hear them discussing, ‘How does that part work? Which kind of gear or torque is best?’ They’re analyzing in an incredibly new way and their minds are expanding.”

A fulfilling and motivating experience
While assembling the robots, the students used Altair’s OptiStruct software to lay out the optimal structural members in the design. It’s the same software used by Boeing in the design of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The students spent considerable time in machine shops, classrooms and small group as they constructed the robot, thanks to monetary and software grants sought by Thorleifson and awarded to the team by Boeing and Altair.

Mentor Brian Gattman said the Jackson team specifically used Altair’s OptiStruct to do topology optimization for the robot. For example, the application showed them that they needed to add a cross member to the back area of the robot to help stiffen the frame to support linkages.

“The goal of FIRST Robotics is to inspire young people in careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” Gattman said. “A study by Brandeis University that looked back at previous participants in FIRST, comparing them with other students that had similar backgrounds, found that more than three times as many FIRST team students were likely to major in engineering. Furthermore, FIRST students are about 10 times more likely to have had an apprenticeship, internship or co-op job as a college freshman.”

Mentor Joris Poort from Boeing revealed that he was inspired by his observations of the Jackson team. “For us to see kids use the tools that we use in the industry, like Altair software, is really a powerful thing,” he said. “They have the opportunity to become great engineers in the future.”

His impressions were echoed by senior Colin Bundschu, who said, “Before, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I had no direction. Now I feel like I’m doing something that will help me get somewhere. The experience has been very fulfilling and extremely motivating.”

The Jackson High School team members included:
  • Seniors Colin Bundschu and Brian Stephan, Mike Tomber
  • Juniors Monica Ilich, Bryan Kim, Arwen Reeves, Kartik Rishi and Patrick Woolfenden, Natasha Gendran
  • Sophomores Christian Bundschu and Charlie Franklin
  • Freshmen Jeff Goodhue, Tyler Hittle, Michael Yagi and Kai-Hwa Yao.

Henry M. Jackson High School's 2009 First Robotics Team - Mill Creek, Washington

About Altair Engineering

Altair Engineering, Inc. empowers client innovation and decision-making through technology that optimizes the analysis, management and visualization of business and engineering information. Privately held with more than 1,300 employees, Altair has offices throughout North America, South America, Europe and Asia/Pacific. With a 20-year-plus track record for enterprise analytics, product development and advanced computing, Altair consistently delivers a competitive advantage to customers in a broad range of industries. To learn more, please visit www.altair.com.

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