BRIDGEPORT — Dutifully, Baby Dwight Howard sits alone in a darkened computer lab, ready for more instructions and action on the field of battle.
Baby Dwight is the name given by a group of Chicago teens to their shot-blocking robot, created with help from Illinois Institute of Technology students Ryan Kamphuis and Kori Bowns, along with Ben Noetzel, a youth programs coordinator with Benton House, a Bridgeport social resource agency.
"The reason we were so intensely focused on this is that there's not much for kids to do in Bridgeport. ...This was about reaffirming the importance of having availability, having options, for teens to get involved in something," Noetzel said.
The team — dubbed the “Robotic Rangers” — is comprised of nine teenagers recruited from high schools throughout the city, mostly from the South and Southwest Sides. Their debut effort was made possible by a $6,500 grant from the First Robotics Alliance, a NASA program that administers contests for youth-run robotics competitions across the world.
After rounding up the high schoolers, the coaches and kids set out to create their robot — a boxy device filled with wires, microchips and batteries. It's topped with a few halves of swimming pool noodles, attached as a defense mechanism to help block shots by opposing robots trying to shoot discs into a goal.
The whole device is controlled by joysticks plugged into a laptop connected via Wi-Fi to a receiver attached to the robot.
The learning curves were steep at first. The team practiced driving the robot in Benton House's "Ramova Room," a community center that serves as the agency's food pantry.
Plus, the coaches had to unify teens who were strangers in a program that was new to them.
"The first week of the build season they stayed pretty independent, but they quickly became inseparable," Kamphuis, vice president of IIT's robotics club, said of the students.
"They did better than Kori, Ben and me. They worked together, through thick and thin. They all pulled their weight. They all learned about science and technology," Kamphuis said.
The team wrapped up its first competition at the UIC Pavilion last month, a Midwest regional hoisted by the Illinois First Robotics Competition, finishing a respectable 24th out of 53 teams and earning an award for being the highest-seeded rookie team.
"As far as spectacle goes, [the competition] was pretty awesome," Noetzel said of the April 4-6 events. "It was almost like this county fair atmosphere."
For Noetzel, the competition served as an evolution of sorts for the 105-year-old agency, and dovetailed with its computer-oriented programs, like a partnership with the Youth Technology Corps.
"We've been talking about Benton House being an incubator, a place to build relationships and build experiences. But taking on the burden ourselves is logistically impossible, so this is very much an intentional way to get where we're going," he said.