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Natalie Zaman is kept busy by pointy things.  Pencils. Pens. Needles (the knitting and sewing variety). Arrows. She also has an eye for the sparkly, and likes black. She’s the co-author of Sirenz and Sirenz Back in Fashion.

 

Steampunk Robots

by Natalie Zaman

As an aspiring manufacturer of gaslight fantasy, I’m always looking for resources—not just the reading kind, but the living kind—the kind you can hear, taste, touch, experience… However the essence of Victorian science fiction is no easy thing to come by in Suburbia, save through various media and my own invention. But the aether will surprise you, sometimes when you least expect it. It found me on, of all things, a school field trip—to the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

Very well… perhaps it’s not so surprising that one would make such an encounter at a celebration of, well, science—but in an arena filled with Frisbee throwing robots?

1 Team 4531 on the Field

Can you spot the Infernal Device?

I was playing spectator, waiting for my daughter’s team to play their match when I saw the first sign.

Unmistakable.

Indubitable.

A top hat.

I blinked, and then all I could see were numbers, steel and plexi-glass, all well rooted in the 21st century. The match I waited for finished, and I went out into the hallway, only to meet this chap.

2 Steampunk Chap

Fancy meeting you here.

So there was a Steampunk-themed robotics team—one whose members possess the sartorial sensibilities of a crew of airship captains. I wanted to know more, but first, a little bit about FIRST, the instrument of fate that brought us together:

Started by inventor Dean Kamen and Dr. Woodie Flowers in 1989, FIRST’s acronym explains its mission: For Inspiration and Recognition In Science and Technology. Each year FIRST teams build a robot to accomplish a specific challenge. This year it was throwing Frisbees and climbing a pyramid.

3 Bringing the Robot onto the Field

Getting ready for competition.

4 Drive Team

Technology needs a human element. Enter, the robot drivers.

 

Team #4531, STEMpunk (another fitting acronym, though not exactly “steamy”: Science Technology Engineering Math + punk) hails from Mishicot, Wisconsin. They earned their spot at the World Championships by being the 2013 Wisconsin Regional Highest Rookie Seed team and winning the 2013 Wisconsin Regional Rookie All-Star award.

When I visited their pit (home base where repairs are made) to ask “Why Steampunk” (they were the only team at the Dome with Victorian flair after all), I was enthusiastically informed that scientific spirit of Steampunk manifested in its gears and cogs and wheels, “fit.” It is a perfect combination. In addition to the science, there’s the “handmade” aspect of the program; not just the robot (which the students design and build themselves with the guidance of mentors), but outfits, accessories, swag and environment, all concocted by the students…

5 Pit CrewSome of the extraordinary gentlemen of STEMpunk. And yes, there are ladies too.

And then there’s that swaggering bravado, an essential trait of all budding venture-capitalist-scientists:

6 Team in Tees

Whether in standard issue team tees…

7 Team in Stands

 …or full regalia, the gears are always turning.

The robot is still waiting to get a Victorian veneer—a goal for the future. That’s the thing about brass-works, clockworks, gears, chains and other trappings—they’re heavy, and the rules are strict when it comes to weight limitations. It will be a challenge, but if anyone knows about the blending of form following function, it’s STEMpunk. Lest you think that their garb is purely for show, have a look at the nifty safety glasses that are a part of their everyday work wear.

8 Goggles

Cleverness! The eyepieces screw off so the dark lenses can be removed, leaving the wearer with fully functional safety glasses.

Little details like this—or big ones like how things work (students learn and use mathematical and scientific concepts as well as training on a variety of machinery), lend authenticity and tactile touchstones to a story. I was fascinated by the melding of past and present so well done by team #4531—but there are hundreds of other teams with varying themes and in various stages of formation—there’s lots to learn on all sides.

If your novel has scientific or technological elements, involvement in FIRST could be a mutually beneficial form of research. My own light involvement in my daughter’s team gave me a better understanding of scientific concepts (and my algebra is admittedly improved—who knew it would be useful in re-sizing photos?). Teams need volunteers both in and out of the shop—writing and communication skills are key in promoting and growing interest in the program and for raising funds (things that so many authors become good at by default). If you have the time and like working with young people, think about volunteering for FIRST—then get ready to inspire and be inspired.

And you’ll never meet a nicer bunch of kids.

~Natalie

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