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Education: Robotics competition teaches more than technology

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Their robot flipped onto its side in the final round of competition, but the Robo Renegades from Waccamaw Intermediate School still managed to roll into the championships of a state robotics competition. They can thank the albatross for that.

The team of fifth- and sixth-graders was one of 14 in a FIRST Lego League regional competition held at the school over the weekend. Bringing the event to Georgetown County was a way to encourage other district schools and community groups to get involved, said Louis Rubbo, president of the state organization. The next round will be held in January at Waccamaw High for teams from the eastern part of the state. He hopes that will inspire the high school to join Carvers Bay and Andrews in creating a robotics team.

FIRST is a nonprofit that promotes technology education. (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology is the name behind the acronym.) The Lego League for students in grades four through eight is one of four programs. FIRST Robotics Competition is for high schools. Waccamaw Intermediate created its first FIRST team in 2012 and earned a trip to the state championship.

Waccamaw Middle also had at team in this year’s regional event. So did Waccamaw Library, whose Bionic Butterflies won the award for robot design.

The Lego League requires teams to build a robot using Lego Mindstorms kits and program it to carry out tasks on a 4-by-8-foot board. The theme for this year’s competition is Animal Allies, and each of the 15 tasks reflects some aspect of human-animal interaction. Part of the strategy is deciding which combination of tasks can garner the most points and still be completed in two and a half minutes. Each team gets three tries and the top score counts.

While that’s the showcase, it is only a platform for three other parts of the competition. Each team had to identify a problem where people and animals interact then design a solution. The projects were presented to a panel of judges. That’s where the albatross came into the picture for the Robo Renegades. Team member Luke Kibler discovered the birds on lists of endangered and threatened species. “It’s kind of a big deal,” he said. The team devised a project to create “tiger shark streamers” to discourage the birds from diving on long-line fishing bait, a main cause of albatross deaths. It won first place.

Teams are also judged on their robot design. Ellie Keesee, one of the Bionic Butterflies, went to a camp Rubbo held over the summer and honed her design skills. The team kept its design simple, she said. The judges liked that. “We also had a jig,” she said. That allowed the team to align the robot on the table more precisely at the start of its missions. The Bionic Butterflies won first place for robot design.

In both parts of the competition, the teams are assessed on a set of core values based on how well they work together and with other teams. They get a chance to explain those values to the judges as well. “The most important thing to take away is ‘gracious professionalism,’ ” said Amy King, children’s librarian at Waccamaw Library and a coach of the Bionic Butterflies. FIRST has a trademark on the term along with “coopertition,” a mix of cooperation and competition. “It’s really about respecting other people,” King said. “The robotics is great, but core values is the really important part.”

Those values are tested in the robotics competition. Tasks that the robot performs in development don’t always run smoothly when the clock starts ticking. The Waccamaw Middle Wildcats were aiming at 57 points. They got 15 in the first round, but the team remained upbeat.

“We missed the shark by just a hair,” said Steven Insignares, who had charge of the Waccamaw Middle robot. The task required moving a shark tank without moving the shark inside. The same thing happened in the second round.

“I know we’ve got it,” said Micah Freeman, the math teacher who coaches the team. “Let’s go for broke.” The team ended up pulling out 36 points in their third try.

“That’s how it works,” King said, who has coached past teams at the library at St. Michael’s Catholic School. She pointed to one team in the regional event that had rounds with no points and one point before hitting 60. “You have to constantly tweak it,” she said. That’s something the volunteer judges watch for. “We look at what happens when they mess up,” Rubbo said. “Do they smile and start again?”

As one of four teams to advance to the next level – the Circuit Boards of St. James Middle, the Termigators of Forestbrook Middle and New Kids on the Bot, a Carolina Forest community group, were the others – the Robo Renegades are already at work to tweak everything from the robot design to their team dynamic. They watched videos of the judging to identify ways to improve. They also got some pointers from Ellie, who is a fifth-grader at Waccamaw Intermediate. “They liked how we had a simple robot,” she told the Renegades. Her team also explained more of their strategy to the judges. And their robot, Nectar, also stood out because the team decided it was a female, King said.

Luke, a fifth-grader and the only veteran team member, suggested the Robo Renegades use a light sensor to guide their robot. But Ellie said the sensor isn’t always reliable.

The problem with the Robo Renegade, the robot from which the team took its name, was it didn’t return to base as programmed, said Cameron Conard, a sixth-grader. It was still “buggy” on the eve of the event, said Nate Giltmier, a fifth-grader. The team agreed they need to devote a full day to working out a new strategy.

Becky Anderson, who coaches the team with Beth Goude, also pointed out that although the team won praise from the floor judges and other teams for showing core values, that was the area where they scored lowest in an interview with two judges. “We forgot that we’ve got to have fun,” she said. Fun was the core value the Robo Renegades ranked highest.

The S.C. Eastern Championship on Jan. 21 will draw 40 to 45 teams to Waccamaw High. “They get more elaborate,” Rubbo said. “There’s almost a NASCAR feel.”

There are over 300 FIRST Lego League teams in the state. About 30 percent reach the championships. The others help fill the ranks of the volunteers needed to run the events. It’s a good way to learn, Rubbo said.

“People are willing to share,” said King, who plans to help out at the state event. “And you won’t have the pressure of competition.”

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