Brandeis kids learn valuable lessons from a golem

There's a golem lurking about the halls of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael. It moves faster than most kids can run and has already raised a ruckus, upending the school's trash cans.

But this is no ghoulish demon or half-dead creature looking for children to feast upon. It's a robot.

Twelve middle-school students and a gaggle of teachers and parents for weeks have logged long extracurricular hours building and learning to drive Golem, as it's affectionately called. Their effort is part of a nationwide educational program and competition sponsored by NASA.

This week, the middle-schoolers and Golem will compete against the robots and student teams from some 20 schools at the NASA hangar in Moffett Field. The robot-vs.-robot contest will be telecast live from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday on the NASA-Select cable station.

"This is not [a game] where the robots eat each other and knock each other's arms off," explained Rabbi Henry Shreibman, head of schools at Brandeis' Marin and San Francisco campuses. "We've designed a strategy for our robot to collaborate with the other robots."

Yet while the students may direct their robots to make nice-nice, their primary goal is to run their mechanical creations through a series of maneuvers that score points toward winning.

Also during the three-day event, the Brandeis team will talk about their robot and the competition via live-satellite Web link with students in Israel, who are involved with a technology project of their own. The pairing of an American school and an Israeli middle school was suggested by NASA officials to coincide with Jewish Web Week, which begins Sunday. Brandeis administrators readily agreed and finagled the shidduch with Chativat Ze`ev in Herzliya.

That Brandeis was able to participate at all, much less expand the project to include a high-tech cultural exchange, set a couple of precedents. It's the only Jewish school that NASA has approached, and it's the only middle school participant in the national contest.

"This competition is geared to high school students," said Mark León, NASA's public education coordinator in the Bay Area. "On rare occasions, [contest organizers] make an exception but never with a rookie team. I told them the school was an exception."

León was tipped off to Brandeis by an acquaintance who was close to the school community. After talking with school administrators, León said he was impressed by reports of an active parent-faculty science and technology team. Many of the parents are engineers and high-tech professionals and have been active in wiring the campus for national Net Day.

NASA gave the Brandeis team $4,000 worth of electronic parts and a green light to build their 'bot.

Arni McKinley, parent coordinator of the project and chair of the school's technology committee, says the task allows students to "get a hands-on experience and work with engineers who do this for a living," in keeping with the committee's goals for furthering high-tech education at the school.

The five girls and seven or so boys who volunteered for the project, along with some parents and teachers have been meeting weeknights and Sundays to assemble their robot and learn to drive it with a remote. They set up rubber pylons and trash cans to buffer the 150-pound Golem from walls when she….er…it gets out of control. And the students, sans drivers' permits, take turns learning to control the squirrelly devil.

Younger siblings often tag along to watch. They were eventually recruited to design the logos for the competition T-shirts.

"It's kind of like a big family," joked Rebecca Jacobs, a Brandeis seventh-grader.

Rebecca became interested in the project after attending NASA's space camp, where she learned about a universe far from Marin and experienced zero-G gravity on a simulated-space chair.

As part of the robot project, the Sausalito 12-year-old is learning about 3-D computer rendering and is helping to make an infomercial about the whole affair. Other students are documenting the project with a video camcorder.

As for Golem, "it's sort of become a kind of pet," she said. "It doesn't have enough personality to be human but people have become attached to the name."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.