Last week, the Woodlawn High School robotics team took its 6-foot-tall, 110-pound metal robot to a world championship competition.
So you might think their coach, Daniel Eiland, is an expert in engineering and robots.
He doesn’t even trust himself to use power tools.
Eiland, 34, teaches social studies.
“I still haven’t learned all that I needed to learn about robotics,” Eiland said. “My strength is in managing people, helping them figure out who they need to be.”
Leader of the school robotics team — called Panthrobotics, a play on the school’s Panther mascot — for five years, Eiland has made robot building a popular activity at Woodlawn.
But the lessons he teaches apply to more than just computers and machines.
Their robots stack several packing crates, then place a trash can on top of the crates, either cooperating with other teams or working against them.
Some of the team members build the robot, others drive it. Squads within the team document the Panthrobotics’ year or write essays and make speeches.
At the FIRST Bayou Regionals robotics competition in Kenner in March, the team won four awards. The presentation group won the Chairman’s Award, which goes to the team that demonstrates a measurable impact on their school or community. That qualified it to compete in St. Louis at the FIRST World Championships. FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a student robotics organization.
During the Kenner competition, Eiland was named volunteer of the year. He is known throughout the high school robotics world for helping other teams — often his competition in the Baton Rouge area — improve. Recently, he helped St. Joseph’s Academy start the state’s first all girls team while also mentoring a team from Japan via email.
Hired to teach social studies at Woodlawn, he started assisting the robotics team five years ago. He was recruited for the team because he previously worked at LSU’s Center for Computational Technology.
He talks parents who can help build a decent machine into volunteering, and he reads and talks constantly with other coaches in the ’bot world.
“My goal is to bring all these resources together, mix them together and out comes a great robot at the end,” Eiland said. “That’s kind of how I’ve learned. I’ve gotten better at the robot side of it.”
After school at the final robotics meeting before the team left for the World Championships in St. Louis, the gregarious and fast-talking Eiland scrambled to get two squads of the Panthrobotics team going. His Chairman’s Award squad practiced the seven-minute presentation it gave before judges about the volunteer work the team did while the build team focused on improving its robot for St. Louis.
Danielle Massey, one of the presenters, ate Eiland’s peanut butter sandwich as an after-school snack and scanned her note cards.
“He’s a big nerd,” Massey, a 15-year-old sophopmore, said of Eiland.
“He’s like a second father to me and a lot of the team,” added Heidi Fendlason, a 15-year-old freshman.
When Principal Scott Stevens stopped by the library to check in, he said that the Panthrobotics team was like a family, a notion voiced by the students.
“These kids are always looking out for each other, always doing things together,” he said.
Part of the robot build team crew, Brennan Burleigh joined Panthrobotics because he loves science. Eiland has helped him develop other skills, he said.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to interact with people and handle them and handle high-stress situations,” Burleigh said.
One of the top lessons Eiland wishes to teach his students is to “never be afraid to ask for everything.”
He wanted a 3D printer to make robot parts or keychains to promote their team, and he asked for it on an Internet funding site. A couple from Colorado paid for it.
Three years ago he wanted to host a huge robotics competition at Woodlawn. Even though many supporters thought hosting such an event would be too expensive, The Red Stick Rumble brought robotics students of all ages from all over the state. It’s become an annual event.
“A lot of people are afraid of what might happen,” Eiland said. “We are never afraid to try big stuff.”
At the FIRST World Championships last week, the team didn’t win any big awards.
“A lot of it was a learning experience,” Eiland said. “We were up against teams that have been doing it 20 years. Now, we start planning for next year.”
The team plans to be back at the championships. And Eiland plans to lead them.