Larkin does all this at Lansdale Catholic High School with 25 students on his robotics team. They compete in the annual FIRST robotics competition, and this year's national championships are set for April 23 to 26 in St. Louis.
Before teams reach that level, however, they must pass through regional competitions and collect enough money to pay their way.
Lansdale Catholic, along with teams from many other area high schools, is set to compete at Hatboro-Horsham High School in the Mid-Atlantic Region district opener on March 1 and 2, then at Seneca High School in Tabernacle on March 22 and 23. Then it's on to the Mid-Atlantic Region championship, of which Larkin is chairman, at Lehigh University's Stabler Arena on April 10 to 12.
Lansdale Catholic, which will pay $5,000 to compete in the Mid-Atlantic meets, will not attend the nationals in St. Louis this year, Larkin said, "because we just don't have the money."
"We should have won this one, but we got robbed," Larkin said last week while watching a video from a 2008 competition. "It's all right, though. I'm not bitter."
Lansdale Catholic has had its share of winners. It has won seven awards, including regional awards in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2007.
"You get to do different stuff and learn different stuff every year," said senior Stephen Digregoria, a three-year veteran of the team.
Funding the future
FIRST (for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology") was founded in 1989 and is based in Manchester, N.H. A not-for-profit public charity, it is supported, it says, by a network of 3,500 corporate, educational, institutional, and individual sponsors and more than 130,000 volunteers.
Through a series of four creative engineering competitions for preschoolers - using Legos to build stuff - through high school seniors, FIRST reports that it has helped create more than $19 million in college scholarships for 2014 through nearly 900 scholarships from more than 150 scholarship providers.
Comcast is a major sponsor, and Drexel, Temple, and Pennsylvania State Universities provided scholarship money for last year's competitions.
"This definitely is helping us address the [educational] dilemma in this country," said Sherita Ceasar, vice president of national engineering and technical operations for Comcast. "We're looking at these kids. We're giving them internships. . . . Ultimately we want to hire them."
Although Larkin first became involved with the Lansdale Catholic students when his children attended the school, he also leads engineering seminars for students of other schools.
And he helped entice Comcast to sponsor not only the Lansdale Catholic robotics program but other teams around the country. In the six years it has been involved with the FIRST program, Comcast has gone from funding four teams - two in the Philadelphia area and two in Denver - to sponsoring 58 teams, eight in the Philadelphia area.
Lots of solutions
Outside Lansdale Catholic on a recent Saturday, students shouted and slid down snowy hills on their sleds. Inside, delayed by off days due to the recent storms, Larkin and the school's robotics team worked feverishly to get their robot ready by that Tuesday deadline.
In the classroom, two tables were surrounded by students working on the robots, which generally weigh about 150 pounds. The team had received the competition specifications on Jan. 4 and had six weeks to build and program its robots to perform specified tasks.
In addition to the classroom in which the robot was built, there was a smaller room that contained spare parts, a second test robot, and a work station that the programming team used to create the code that controls the robot.
This year's robot features infrared sensors that detect when an obstacle is in front of it. Then, the program will direct the robot to raise an arm to grab whatever is in the way.
By working on how to avoid or remove the obstacles, the students "get the idea that there are a lot of solutions for a problem," Larkin said.
For this year, FIRST reports that more than 350,000 students on 32,600 teams will compete in all of the opening rounds. In the high school robotics competition, 2,720 teams and 68,000 students have entered.
That's a lot of education, Larkin said.
"At the end of the day," Larkin said, "there's a lot of cool stuff these robots can do, if you stick with it."
BY THE NUMBERS
maximum poundage of robots.
weeks allowed to build robots.
teams expectd to compete in the first regional meet at Hatboro-Horsham on March 1-2.
students to compete nationally in all four programs.
robots to be built nationally in all four programs.