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Education: Robotics team gets a vocabulary lesson

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

in-con-sis-tent: not always acting or behaving in the same way

A robotics competition turned into a vocabulary lesson this year for a team of fifth-graders at Waccamaw Intermediate School. The six members of the Beach Bots were part of the First Lego League, an event which required them to design and build a robot to accomplish a series of tasks in a time trial.

They learned about programming and they learned about teamwork. They also learned about inconsistency.

Getting the EV3 robot to repeat the same task in the same way proved difficult. Trying to solve the problem, they even reinvented the wheel – at least the ones on the robot. “They think all we do is play with Legos. It’s not. We do research,” said Atty Almonte.

They measure the course the robot must follow and program the distance, direction and speed. That’s in addition to creating attachments to perform various tasks under the common theme of “World Class Competition,” such as pulling a ball in a soccer goal.

But it was hard to get the robot to repeat the tasks the same way every time. After inspecting their creation for dust and grit, they ended up changing its tires, figuring they were worn differently on each side.

They called their entry RoboCrab. “We were shy at the beginning,” Luke Fisher explained. “We came out of our shell.”

There are a variety of tasks that teams can attempt. They have to figure out which ones will earn the most points and can be completed within two and a half minutes.

At first, they thought about staying on one end of the 4-by-8-foot surface. “We all wanted to do the soccer goal,” Steven Insignares said.

That meant negotiating other features on the board and they devised a bumper for their robot to deflect those obstacles.

Collaborating on the design and the troubleshooting led them to explore the core values of First Lego League, which are also evaluated in regional and then state competition. The Beach Bots got to both, the first in Myrtle Beach last fall and the second at Summerville over the weekend.

A third part of the competition requires the teams to come up with an innovative idea. The Beach Bots drew theirs from the drowning of three Sandy Island residents in a 2009 boating accident. They proposed using a fan to allow people who are afraid of the water to learn to swim in a current of air.

Overcoming fear of the water is the hardest part of learning to swim, said Maddie Weathers. “We could save students’ lives,” she said.

The project drew positive comments from the judges in Summerville, said Charlene Allen, a science teacher who coaches the team with Laura Almonte, the media specialist. “They had to be better than they were at the regional. They were a little intimidated,” she said.

On the eve of the state event, the Beach Bots continued to refine their robot and its programming. When they got to Summerville, they found the table with the tasks was slightly different. That was frustrating for the team, but by that point they were used to inconsistencies.

“They were not discouraged at all,” Allen said.

The First Lego League will announce its next theme in August. Allen said there are hints that it will focus on trash.

The Beach Bots will form the core of next year’s team, but Allen said she and Almonte haven’t decided whether to keep them together as sixth-graders or to mix fifth- and sixth-graders on two teams.

They are also hoping that Waccamaw Middle and Waccamaw High will form teams. In preparing for the state tournament, the Beach Bots went to the regional high school competition in Myrtle Beach.

The robots were larger and both students and teachers came away impressed, Almonte said.

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