Fledgling robotics team learned to program, build

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

In the pit: Naomi Hertz, center, works on Voorheesville’s team robot, Ceasar, with teammate Tommy Kelafant, right, and mentor Joe McDonnell, left, at the First Robotics Competition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last weekend.

NEW SCOTLAND — Voorheesville high school students competed in “the ultimate sport for the mind,” according to organizers of the First Robotics Competition held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last weekend.

“We only had six weeks to build a robot,” said team mentor and engineer Traci Vandervort. “We had the highest point total of all rookie teams.

“Our kids had a fantastic time this weekend,” she said. “One kid told me it was the best weekend of his life!”

“I think our team had a very successful rookie season,” agreed Voorheesville Superintendent Brian Hunt.  “They worked hard and they learned a great deal.”

The team achieved the highest rookie seed in the qualifying rounds of the Tech Valley First regional championship, Hunt explained.

With a competition like a cross between Nascar and Star Trek, First Robotics encourages students to combine mechanical, electrical, and software components into the design and building of a robot. Voorheesville’s team, after only six weeks,  joined together on game day with two other robot teams to compete against an additional three robots for a field game, with each team using an industrial-sized robot designed and built by students.

“We had some kids who really love software,” said Vandervort, who was one of Voorheesville’s seven adult professional mentors. “One built our website — a really important part of the project.

“Some kids who were really great with their hands, great with a screwdriver — they learned machining; how you put together gears and axles to put together an articulating arm, for example,” Vandervort said.

When the season began in January, she said, some of the kids “couldn’t strip a wire. Now, they could rewire the whole robot in a couple of hours, if they had to.

“For us, most of the emphasis was on how the robot worked and how we functioned as a team,” Vandervort said.

“At some point during our three-day competition at RPI,” she said, “every team had their disabled robot in parts on the floor as they did a quick repair. It’s a rough and tumble game and parts break, wires become loose, etc. We had about 20 minutes between matches, and, sometimes, the students were fixing three different things at the same time. It was very stressful and exhilarating, all at the same time.  This is where problem-solving skills come into play.”

Team members

Voorheesville’s team included 15 students, with the majority of them sophomores. Students divvied up tasks according to software programming, electrical or battery-powered requirements, and mechanical needs.

“All the facets — electrical, mechanical and software — had to be integrated,” Vandervort said. “For example, the motors are wired into a power distribution panel. The motors turn the wheels. The software group programs how the joystick controls the motors, and, therefore, the speed of the robot. It’s all connected.”

During the competition, students worked with their equipment in a 10-by-10 foot pit, re-evaluating their robot between rounds while answering questions from judges about their work.

“I served as a volunteer mentor for the club this year, and plan to continue that role next year,” Hunt said. “I take care of the paperwork and help them with publicity and fundraising. I sometimes attend build sessions when I can just to see how they are progressing.”

Students met after school for three hours from Monday through Thursday, and met for six hours each Saturday during the six-week build period, Vandervort said.

Students should be proud that they were part of “getting a program off the ground,” she said. “This has a very steep learning curve.”

All of the team’s mentors are professionals, she said; Pat Conway, who helped with project management, is a biomedical engineer, while Stewart Morrison and Joe McDonnell are mechanical engineers, Vandervort said naming a few of the several helpers.

“Joe McDonnell and other mentors taught the students different skills; machining, soldering, riveting, while emphasizing doing this in a safe manner” Vandervort continued. “Safety is very important as the kids were handling powerful tools.”

“We have a great group of mentors,” Hunt agreed.

“We started with nothing,” Vandervort said. “One of my jobs was to figure out what we needed and where to get parts and services. I was on a first-name basis with Robinson’s Hardware. We received generous donations of tools from parents.

“I spent a lot of time on the phone with different robotics companies,” she continued, “learning about different robotic components, like motors and drive trains; ordering parts; and working around delivery issues.  Every First Robotics team seemed to be ordering similar things, so we had to have workarounds when it was clear something would not get delivered on time.  This was a real-world experience for the kids.”

“I hope the kids understand that none of the mentors knew anything about robots,” Vandervort said. “Robotics was not around in colleges when we all got our degrees. Students design them, think about how they’re going to work.”

Working with mentors, students can see that “you get a degree, but you continue to learn and grow throughout your career,” she said. “Their opportunities really are unlimited.”

She credited Hunt with bringing the program to Voorheesville.

“He wrote all the grant applications and secured our funding,” she said. “He has a vision for the future of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] education in Voorheesville, and this is one piece of that.”

Next year

“For the future, the team is going to need to do ongoing fundraising,” Hunt said.  “We will also need to attract more sponsors.  The team is building a website, and has a Twitter and an Instagram account to publicize their successes.  We still have a balance of $8,600 from the grants we received this year, and that will enable us to continue next year with a good starting financial position.”

Funds from a $10,000  Tech Valley First grant Voorheesville received last fall covered $4,000 of a $6,000 fee to enter the competition, and also covered parts and materials, including a basic robotics kit, Hunt said earlier.

The district also received a $4,400 grant from the Voorheesville Community and School Foundation, Hunt said.

“I...think the growth in the club will come from the teamwork they have learned,” Hunt said this week, “as well as the science, technology, engineering, and math knowledge they will need to acquire in their coursework at our high school and in building and programming robots.

“We are already looking toward next season,” he continued. “I attended the competition on Friday and Saturday last week, and it was a great thrill to see them perform so well.”


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