published Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Home-school robot team tussles with rival McCallie

McCallie students, from left, Sebastion Krupa, Madison DeNucci, Joseph Tate
work on robots.
McCallie students, from left, Sebastion Krupa, Madison DeNucci, Joseph Tate work on robots.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A hand-scrawled checklist posted to the wall of the Chatt-Bots lab detailed everything the team was to bring to Kentucky.

Andrew McPherson, now a mentor at the bot-building home-school group, was named on the packing list four times before necessities such as food or water were mentioned.

The recent trip to Kentucky, in which the group competed against teams from across the nation, allowed the students to pit their mechanical wonder, "Ed," against other robots.

The Chatt-Bots were keen to ensure that McPherson made the trip, not only because he's a veteran robot builder and a skilled tinkerer, but because he has a way with words.

"We basically knock stuff over," he said of the challenge course the group faced at a recent robot scrimmage.

But there's a lot more to it than knocking over crates, as both the Chatt-bots and a team from McCallie discovered at a practice scrimmage before the Kentucky tournament.

The game, called Bowled Over, is indeed set up for chaotic, remote-controlled bedlam. But both physics and fun are at play here. This isn't Battlebots or Robot Wars.

In practice, the teenage robot overlords activate an automated program that causes the machines to tip over crates of tennis balls, push a bowling ball around and hopefully end with the robot sitting in a corner.

Then, they'll pick up the remote control and race their silicon-and-steel creation around the arena, trying to scoop the balls into crates, then lift the crate as high off the ground as possible.

It sounds easy, but building a functional robot from scratch that can perform even basic tasks is a time-consuming, iterative process that teaches kids real-world science skills.

First things first

Both McCallie and the Chatt-Bots are part of the First Tech Challenge league, a mid-level robotics competition aimed at introducing middle- and high schoolers to real-world science and physics problems.

Students interested in robotics, which is a sizable chunk of the school population, often get started in the First Lego League by constructing Lego robots capable of performing basic tasks. High school students can enter the First Robotics Competition, in which the robots may weigh as much as a teenager.

First is an acronym that means "for inspiration and recognition of science and technology," part of a group founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to promote science and math awareness in schoolchildren.

Emphasizing "cooperatition," a mash-up of cooperation and competition, the group will give away more than $14 million in college scholarships for robot builders in 2012, according to its website.

That's more than enough incentive for Trevor Noblitt to give it a go.

He's the team captain of the Chatt-Bots, involved in every stage of the process. At the scrimmage with McCallie, a key part of the "cooperatition" included helping the other team get their robot running.

Cooperatition

From attaching a large mechanical arm to connecting the Bluetooth remote, readying McCallie's robot took almost two hours and required the efforts of both teams.

Ross Shumate, who oversees the McCallie team, said that the trial and error process is when fun becomes education.

"It's such an active way to pursue math and science, and the problem solving is so real," Shumate said. "If the thing breaks -- how do you fix it?"

The hardest part is the software coding. Students who haven't taken a single college course have to learn how to program complicated tasks into a artificial intelligence unit on a machine they made themselves.

Some competitions require the robots to be able to shoot a basket, kick a goal or climb a tower, tasks that can require thousands of lines of code.

"They have to work within a budget, and all the design stuff is complete and utterly theirs," Shumate said.

Weird science

The Chatt-Bots' robot outperformed McCallie but came in sixth in Kentucky a few days later. The students chose to play defense at the competition instead of showing off their robot's capability, spectators said.

But the long trip to Tennessee's northerly neighbor wasn't wasted.

Win, lose or draw, the experience as a whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts, Shumate said.

The decision on whether to base a robot on an enormous arm or a belt-driven elevator rests with the students, and they bear the consequences or revel in the glory depending on the idea's execution.

"It forces them to make tough decisions," Shumate said.

Richard Manning, an engineer who mentors teams in the Chattanooga area, said the program also teaches "gracious professionalism" to youths for whom such behavior may still be in the early stages.

"They really work on it not being like Robot Wars," Manning said. "You can even get disqualified for purposefully harming another team's robot."

Trial and error

Engineer Lulu Copeland, who teaches at Chattanooga Sate Community College, is working to offer an outlet for those decisions in Tennessee, so students don't have to travel to Kentucky or Atlanta to compete.

She hopes that Chattanooga will soon host robot exhibitions that attract competitors from all over the U.S., becoming a magnet for students with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

"If you're applying for college, especially an elite school, this kind of stuff is a priceless experience for them," Copeland said.

Universities that aspire to sponsor research in robotics and other cutting-edge technologies are always on the lookout for the next bright undergraduate to push their studies forward, she said.

But the students gain much more than free rides to prestigious institutions of higher learning.

"It takes stuff like this to choose a career path," Copeland said. "If you find out you don't like to tinker, then you shouldn't be an engineer."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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