February is crunch time for a group of high school students who have 44 days to design, build and finish a robot that can perform a specific task.

For the next three weeks, the Center Grove High School robotics team will work on its robot every day.

Building it becomes all-consuming. Team captain Tommy Ramirez even made sure his second-semester classes were less challenging so he would have less homework and could focus on Red Alert Robotics more.

On Saturdays, the team works on the robot from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but a few members stay at the school until midnight to debug mechanical issues, he said.

Story continues below gallery

Countless hours of work are poured into the robot for a competition that lasts 2½ minutes.

With the talent the students have, they should be recognized for their efforts, Ramirez said. He wants the club to receive the same amount of recognition as the sports teams at Center Grove, he said.

This year, Red Alert Robotics is aiming to win the world championship. In order to qualify, the team must first participate in six weeks of competition through the annual For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Competition. Every weekend from mid-February through April, there is a different competition that schools across the nation can attend.

All robotics teams have to stop building their robots on Feb. 17, so Red Alert Robotics sent out invitations to all of the Indiana robotics teams for a scrimmage on Feb. 14 — the last weekend before building has to stop. This will give the teams a chance to test out how well their robots will do in competition with other teams, Ramirez said. That way, if the robot doesn’t work as planned, the team has a few days to troubleshoot issues.

Since the club started at Center Grove 10 years ago, the team has grown from 15 students with seven adult mentors to 58 students with 22 mentors, including engineers to nurses.

Groups of 10 to 12 students design pieces and engineer the mechanics to make the robot move. Another 10 students are writing essays to promote the team and creating T-shirt designs for their team. Another team of 12 will build the actual robot. A few students keep track of the team’s budget, since they can have only $4,000 worth of materials in each year’s model. Each student pays $400 to join the club each year, which covers the cost of materials for the robot and travel expenses for the competitions.

Not all team members will have a part in building or designing the robot, but the entire team is working toward the goal of making sure Red Alert Robotics comes out on top.

“For me, personally, I think just seeing all the kids make something that’s especially innovative to our team (is exciting),” Ramirez said. “It’s not like we’re just building a robot like everyone else is doing. We’re trying to make something that stands out but is also the best robot out there.”

Every January, the national robotics organization releases the year’s objective of what students need to build. This year’s task is to build a robot that can lift and stack totes and recycling bins. In the past, the students had to build a robot that could hurl Frisbees or kick soccer balls.

After that information was released, all 58 Red Alert Robotics team members gathered and produced three sketches of what they would like the robot to be like. Ramirez wanted a final design decided on within three days so everyone could get to work.

This year, design captain Travis Leser, a senior, implemented a critical design review method, so that everyone on the engineering side of the project comes together and goes through every aspect of the machine step by step before building. This will allow them to avoid any easy hiccups that could delay construction later on.

If a problem comes up, such as if the robot’s arm interferes with another part of the machine while trying to pick up a tote, it could take from 30 minutes to three or four hours to fix it.

While this might sound like a lot of work for teenagers, other teams do even more. One team has hosted expos for thousands of people, while another team is hosting a conference at the White House, Ramirez said.

Hailey Rose, a senior and four-year member of the team, keeps track of the team’s budget and revises their business plan. After her exposure to the administrative side of robotics, she plans to major in accounting and finance in college.

“All of those experiences add up to a lot of opportunities for people,” team mentor Chris Osborne said.

On Friday nights, the students have to prove their designs will work in front of engineers who serve as mentors. The engineers ask critical questions about the mechanical aspects of the design, and students need to defend the design, Osborne said.

“For the fee that the parents pay for the students to be on the team, in my estimation, that experience alone is worth 10 times the fee — to have to be in front of those engineers and explain themselves and explain their ideas,” Osborne said. “Win, lose, whatever, we really embrace the journey.”