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Lennard Robotics Club needs your help, offers a boundless future in return

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image Club members work on beating their award-winning entry from last year: a 48-gram bridge that worked at 1,100 percent efficiency. Photo Mitch Traphagen

The club, despite being new and running almost entirely on spare and salvaged parts, tools and PVC pipe donated by people in the community, has already won awards, competing against well-established and well-funded clubs from high schools and colleges.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
 
At just after three o’clock, most of Lennard High School’s 1,700-plus students rush out to enjoy the freedom of after-school youth on a beautiful winter’s day. But not all of the students rush from the Ruskin campus. Some rush to a series of rooms on the second floor, finding a home in a laboratory.

Jim Reve opens the doors to the rooms that serve as the home of the Lennard High School Robotics Club, and happily yells out, “Hello, ladies and gentlemen!”

The students respond in kind, but only briefly looking up from their soldering irons, circuit boards and schematics. In this club, they have found a home. A place where they can dream and then turn those dreams into reality.

Reve spent 26 years working for Lockheed Martin before retiring and then deciding to teach. He found a home at Lennard in 2012 teaching Earth/space science, physical science and physics. And shortly after, seven students joined him to create the Robotics Club.

His years spent at Lockheed Martin helped sharpen Reve’s enthusiasm for discovery. He worked on the Cassini project, named for a spacecraft now orbiting Saturn.

“That project allowed humanity to hear thunder on another world for the first time,” he said with the awe of a young engineer evident in his voice. “Working on that project, I thought nothing could top that. But teaching does, these students in this club do. It is amazing to see the excitement in these guys. It is far more rewarding to see the lights come on in them. They’re not here because they have to be but because they want to be.”

Jim Reve is a modest man. The club, despite being new and running almost entirely on spare and salvaged parts, tools and PVC pipe donated by people in the community, has already had stunning success. The club is winning awards, competing against well-established and well-funded clubs from high schools and colleges. Because the Robotics Club is an extracurricular activity, it does not directly receive funding from the Hillsborough County School District.  For that, it needs help from the community. Reve isn’t asking for much, and his appreciation for what has already been provided to them in donations is boundless.

“With four months left of school, I’m already looking to next year,” he said. “If I could find a thousand dollars, that would be wonderful. And then expendable materials, screws and bolts and plastic parts and PVC. I am already overwhelmed, and I need to find a way to express my sincere gratitude to people in the community. We have wood screws and metal screws and tools and much more, thanks to them.”

Last week, the South Bay After Hours Rotary Club of Sun City Center called Reve to tell him that they would provide the club with $250 per year. As he hung up the phone, his joy was palpable; he was nearly speechless.

Only $750 to go to meet his goal, his dream for his students: such a small number for such a promising and infinite future.

Previously he had to turn away some kids due to a lack of materials. Last week he was able to take on another four new students, bringing the total number to near 40.

“We have freshmen, sophomores and juniors in this room,” he said. “The senior club members are doing a bridge competition where last year we won first place with a 48-gram (roughly 1.7 ounces) bridge built with 1,100 percent efficiency. The seniors here are dual-enrolled; they start their day in high school and then walk across the street to college at Hillsborough Community College. And then they come back here for this.”

The beginnings were humble but also successful.

“We started this as a team building exercise at the NASA egg drop competition,” Reve said. “We had to build a craft that would safely drop an egg 25 feet. It was their first-ever project and they took second place. A second craft won first place in the ‘most creative’ category.”

The club went on to win another award for building a robotic arm. Members were given a box of wood, metal, screws, small motors and wire and told to do what they could with it. Robot 495 came to life.

“The robot, 495, is where we won second place,” Reve said.  “They had a box of stuff and they had to fashion it into something.  It can move 360 degrees with a fully articulating shoulder and a fully articulating elbow. It can capture things.”

And then they went on to new depths.

The craft itself is deceptively simple, made from PVC pipes. The controller is a plastic craft box. The motors are small boat bilge pumps. The propellers are custom-designed. The placement of the motors is ingenious. By themselves, the PVC pipes would be somewhat buoyant, even with the weight of the three bilge-pumps-turned-motors. But while two motors are designed to drive the craft forward, one of them is designed to submerge the craft and control the depth.

“If anyone has some spare bilge pumps, we sure could use them,” Reve said with a laugh.

Many people would spend more for lunch than the total of the craft’s parts cost, yet the value of it is staggering. For the students who built it and watched it dive and perform successfully as designed, the door opened to an unlimited future. A future in which they could make profound discoveries, lead expeditions into the far reaches of space or even build highway bridges that are safer and more cost-effective than ever thought possible.

“They’ll ask me, ‘what would you think about us doing this or that?’” he said. “And I’ll tell them, I don’t know, but it sounds like a great idea. Give it a try.”

He is stunned by what they can conceive. “I’m learning right along with them,” he said. “Most of the time they just come to me and say, ‘We need you to buy this for us.’ I do get asked for technical advice every once in a while, but, for the most part, when they come across a problem, they solve it.”

The next version of the craft will have a custom-built controller along with headlights and cameras. There will be a digital display to reveal what the craft sees beneath the surface.  Another project, a smaller craft, will have pressure and temperature sensors to report data back to the students while on mission underwater.

Amid the circuits, soldering irons, balsa wood, protractors and other spare parts, Reve leaves a loaf of bread, along with jars of peanut butter and jelly on one table. For some kids, lunch and dinner can sometimes be luxuries. Since the club meeting times end long after the school buses have been parked, Reve and his wife often drive some of the students home.

After announcing that he’ll be at the school to finish some work on Saturday, the kids chime in that they’d like to come in as well. To work on their projects. To work on their dreams. To work on the future. Our future.

Students work on wiring and soldering.

When asked if there were other important points that people should know about, one student, a senior, immediately spoke up and said, “Yes, Jim Reve needs to be added. He’s the important point.”

Reve smiled. He is a modest man. He is also a very smart man. He was no doubt thinking the same thing about that student, and all of the young people in the Robotics Club. Each of them is important. And he knows they will be important to the future success of things that we can’t even imagine yet.

Friday is Valentine’s Day and I would normally spend $50 on gifts for my wife. This year, I will write a check donating that amount to the Lennard Robotics Club. “What a wonderful gift that will be,” Michelle said.

It is a gift that she knows will be returned well into the future.

In addition to much-needed financial support, Jim Reve would be very interested to hear from those who may be working in or have retired from engineering or aerospace fields. He knows his students would love to hear about their careers, and either speaking or mentoring opportunities could provide priceless rewards.

For more information about how you can help, call Jim Reve at (813) 641-5611 or email at james.reve@sdhc.k12.fl.us.

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