Stillwater News Press

January 9, 2010

Cyber soccer

Teens have a ball in robotics challenge

Sarah Morris

Thirty-one robots are in various stages of completion after 825 students from across the state came together to launch the FIRST Robotics Competition season.

This year’s kickoff event was held Saturday on the Oklahoma State University campus starting with a NASA-aired broadcast of the 2010 challenge and rules.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition involves 1,809 teams of 45,225 students ages 14-18 worldwide in building robots from a FIRST-provided kit of motors, batteries, a control system and a mix of automation components. No instructions are included.

“The neat thing about the robotics team is that it is set up for kids of all interests,” Ron Markum, a research engineer for Oklahoma State University’s mechanical department, said. “It’s not just about building a robot, but setting a small business experience and running your team like a business.”

FIRST, founded in 1989, works to inspires young people’s interest in education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math while boosting self-confidence, knowledge and life skills, according to its Web site.

“It’s a great way to start out with what we want to do especially at our age,” Luke Davis, a Stillwater Middle School student, said. “There is so many things we can do and this is a great thing to do.”

It is the first year for Davis and schoolmate Eli Stewart to be on Thunderstorm Robotics, which is coached by Markum. It is an independent team that is not associated with any school or organization.

Markum said to be a member of the team, students must be willing to follow two rules: Conduct the work safely and maintain a Christian atmosphere.

On Saturday, four-year participant Daniel Huggins, Stillwater Junior High student, was showing the boys the electrical aspect of creating a robot.

Stewart said, “Actually getting to build things” is one of his favorite parts to the competition.

“I’ve always been into robotics and I love to build things,” Stewart said.

For the kickoff event, 49 teams from across the state picked up their robot kits with 31 teams staying to build the robots that afternoon in a “quick build session.” Markum said the session is a Stillwater product that began two years ago and was adopted by FIRST last year.

“This puts the Oklahoma teams ahead of the other teams that don’t stay,” Markum said. He said it takes teams with no experience about two weeks to build a robot where as a team that stays can build one in four hours since there is experienced help available to answer questions.

Of the teams to stay were 20 students forming the Meridian Technology Center robotics team. It is the third year for the school to have a team of mostly high school sophomores through seniors.

David Barth, a Pre-Engineering Academy instructor, said 90-percent of the students are in the technology center’s Pre-Engineering Academy, information technology, and computer drafting programs.

“These are kids that want to be here. They are not getting an extra grade,” said Barth, one of the four team advisers.

For Saturday’s event, Barth said the team’s goal was simple. He said, “We want to have a robot that is actually drivable.” To accomplish this, the group worked from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to build the robot with the students split into four groups focusing on electronics, framing, programming and transmissions.

The students then have six weeks to build a robot before Fed Ex, a FIRST sponsor, picks up the robot to store until the March 25-27 regional competition in Oklahoma City, FIRST Oklahoma Regional Director Harold Holley said.

Holley said the robots are taken away so they are not worked on during the month between the finish date and the competition. A practice day is held at the March regional for teams to finalize and test their robots.

Ed Latimer, a Ponca City team mentor who helped with Saturday’s event, said the challenge is “basically a soccer game. They have goals at the corners of the area with dividers in the middle.”

“It’s basically, what I can tell, scoring points by getting balls in the goal and that is not as easy as that sounds because you have other robots on the field trying to keep you from scoring,” Markum said.

Holley said, “If the robot can pull itself up off the ground in the last seconds of the game and another friendly robot can grab a hold of it and pull itself off the ground then they get maximum points.”

Meridian team member Cody Fowler of Mulhall-Orlando High School said he is looking forward seeing how the robot performs in the end.

Fowler said he liked “that we get to do it ourselves — the teachers don’t butt in and do it themselves.”

“If we do something wrong, they let us and then they help you fix it,” Fowler said. “You’re building.”

Fowler’s teammate Anthony Abela of Guthrie High School said programming would be the most challenging aspect of the competition for him since “computer’s aren’t friendly.”

“I’ve always wanted to build a robot,” Abela said. “I thought it would be a good experience. Something I could put under my belt.”

The Meridian information technology major said the work would help him in his chosen career path. Abela plans to attend OSU next fall for networking technology.

Both Stillwater teams will continue their robot building throughout the next six weeks.

Updates on their work will be provided in upcoming editions.