Students clash over robot-building skills in Georgetown competition

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2012 

There was a lot of brainpower on display Saturday at Elkhorn Crossing School in Georgetown.

The school hosted a robotics competition with 49 teams of high-school and middle-school students from 18 Kentucky counties and from Ohio and Tennessee, with several hundred students, parents and teachers attending.

It was the kind of event where you could hear talk of torque, sensors and potentiometers as students worked on their robots along the main corridor of the school.

"It's neat to see the kids excited about something that's more academic," said Doug Klein, who teaches engineering at Elkhorn Crossing.

The teams designed and built robots that picked up or pushed pellet-filled sacks weighing half a pound. The entrants scored points for lifting the sacks from the floor of the 12-foot-square ring into an 18-inch high trough or positioning the sacks in other designated areas in the ring.

The students had to figure out such issues as the best configuration for the robots and how much power to give them. Some teams programmed their robots to operate autonomously, without a student controlling the machine.

Some used wheels to move the robots, while others built robots with tracks like those on a tank. Some teams put platforms on arms that could lift the sacks into the trough, while others used a claw that could grab the bags or a conveyor-type system.

"It's really cool to figure out certain combinations that work the best," said Josh Bailey, a member of an Elkhorn Crossing team that had the highest score at one point early Saturday afternoon.

Building one of the robots can take several hours. They can cost upwards of $2,000, but the components can be reused, Klein said.

Similar competitions are held around the world using VEX Robotics systems and rules, so that the machines and tournaments are standardized.

"There's not much I can think of as an engineer that you can't do with this system," said Rhodes Barnett, who helps advise teams from Jackson, Tenn., that contended Saturday.

Christian Pena, a student at Elkhorn Crossing who competed in the VEX Robotics world championship last year, said he and his team members had rebuilt their robot four times.

"Anything that can go wrong with a robot, we've learned will go wrong," Pena said after working on the machine, named B.A. Baracus after a character on the 1980s action television show The A-Team.

Pena said that each year, VEX changes the object the robots have to manipulate, so students face new engineering challenges. Last year, the games involved putting balls in barrels, he said.

Students on the Woodford County High School team said they'd built five or six iterations of their robot, which used a conveyor system to lift the sacks into the trough.

"Lots of trial and error design," said Conor Gaines, one of the team members.

The robotics competition added another dimension to classroom instruction by providing a hands-on application and by boosting motivation and excitement.

"It's taking something that you learn in your math and science classes and applying it to something that's fun," Gaines said.

Building the machines involved not only robotics, but mechanical and electrical engineering, computer programming, critical thinking, problem solving, time management and teamwork, said Jean Porter, a Woodford County engineering teacher.

The competition is a part of a larger effort to boost the number of students interested in pursuing science and technology-related careers. There has been a concern that the United States is falling behind other nations on that front.

Saturday's event was the third hosted by Elkhorn Crossing, and the interest has grown each year, Klein said, with 14 teams the first year and 40 last year.

The tournament at the Scott County school is the largest in Kentucky, Klein said. The tournament was a regional qualifying event for the VEX Robotics world championship, scheduled for April 2013 in Anaheim, Calif.

Klein said five teams qualified for the world championship: two from Elkhorn Crossing; a team from Owen County High School; Boy Scout Troop 177 from Georgetown; and a team from Marion, Ohio.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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