When Andrew Stern, 17, started his senior project at Shepaug Valley High School in October, he set his eye on earning an award in the state Conquest tournament.

The event, which took place during March in West Hartford, pits 24 robots developed by student teams in competition.

Many of the teams had competed before.

Shepaug would be entering as rookies, yet Andrew was undaunted.

The Shepaug team -- The Improbable Phenomenon -- captured second place and won the Rockwell Collins Innovative Award.

It was a big day, Andrew admitted.

"My senior project was starting the robotics team here at Shepaug," Andrew said. "The result of the competition didn't count toward the grade for my project, but it was a nice plus."

Robert, as the robot is named, was designed in October. Basic construction was completed in February.

Finish-up tweaking, training the driver, Kyle Lundigher, to use the control, and readjusting the robot as strategies changed continued up to the day before the competition.

"For the autonomous part of the competition, where they programmed the robot and it ran itself from that programming, our robot was more facile than the others," said Kim Gallo, Shepaug's principal. "It was due to the four-wheel-drive component Andrew developed."

"I came up with the basic design and a lot came from the rest of the team," Andrew said.

Keeping everyone on the 11-student team "focused and on target" proved a challenge, he added.

Innovations for the robot's run of the course included having Robert turn off a ramp, secure a bowling ball and move it across the course. Other robots just drove down the ramp and then moved straight ahead.

"It was a very ambitious project," said Andrew's senior project adviser, Stephen Riley. "To lead the design and to pull together the funding to build the whole box field was tremendous."

"Our driver was the only driver who had experience on the field as it existed in the competition," he said. "The whole team did a great job."

Andrew said he emerged from the experience more prepared to pursue an electrical engineering major at college in the fall. He was waiting to hear back from Cornell and Brown universities.

He secured $3,000 in project funding from Parker Medical Inc. in Bridgewater.

Parker owner Bill Holland said Andrew "presented his idea in the most professional way. He was so thorough and business-like."

"I asked him what we'd get out of it. Told him when we develop a product, there's a plus to it for us," Mr. Holland said with a laugh. "I wanted to see his initial plan, progress reports that were informative. And he responded with all of it on time."

Mrs. Gallo said she is going to "work hard" to keep the robotics competition "a STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math) legacy" at the school.

Junior Ryan Dillard, who was on the team, plans to keep the program going as his senior project.

"It was a very ambitious project. To lead the design and to pull together the funding to build the whole box field was tremendous."

Stephen Riley, Andrew Stern's senior project adviser

Photography by Norm Cummings