'3, 2, 1, Lego!': Robotics teams put creations to the test

News-DemocratJuly 19, 2013 

Three members of the Tenacious Titans robotics team from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Fairview Heights cluster at the edge of a table.

They position their robot constructed with Legos at home base and all give a thumbs up to the master of ceremonies Friday afternoon during the final competition of the Summer Adventures in Robotics camp at McKendree University in Lebanon.

Master of ceremonies Jake Halde, a science education major at McKendree, then announces, "3, 2, 1, Lego!" and the robot is off to complete missions on a specifically designed course outlined on a table bordered with 2-by-4 pieces of wood. During the third round of the five-round competition, the robot designed and constructed by the Titans retrieves a Lego chair and brings it back to their base.

"This is some intense Lego action," Halde exclaims.

The next mission for the Titans' robot is to push the chair under the Lego table on the course. Then the robot walks the Lego dog with one minute, 30 seconds remaining, and grabs the dog and slowly drags it back to base.

The robot then attempts to knock down bowling pins using a plastic yellow ball. Team member Andrew Connors positions the ball and the robot moves toward the end of the course. The robot drops the ball at the end of the bowling lane and five of the six pins fall down.

For the last mission of the two minute, 30-second round, the Titans' robot heads toward the bridge in the center of the course. However, it fails to make it up the ramp.

As time is called, Andrew's mother, Mary Connors, gives the team a thumbs up. The Titans score 150 points.

Strict rules prohibit team members from touching their robots during the competition except when it's in the home base. The robots are not controlled by any type of remote -- instead they are programmed by the campers using a computer.

The competition Friday was a culmination of the week-long camp. It was governed by rules set fourth by the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Lego League, according to camp coordinator Adam Tournier, an associate professor of physics at McKendree.

Along with the Tenacious Titans, six others teams from throughout the area competed Friday afternoon including The Brainiacs, Justice Ski, T-Bot Rox, Swasome Coelacanths, Metro-East Builders and Robo Bros.

Robo Bros, a home school group from O'Fallon, was the overall winner with a high score of 220 points. The Robo Bros were the only team to successfully balance their robot on the bridge constructed out of Legos, which garnered them 65 points.

Even though the Tenacious Titans didn't win, coach Monique Ybarra, who has two children on the team, said she was proud of how much progress the team made this year compared to when they competed last summer and scored only 40 points. "We have made huge improvement," Ybarra said.

Titans team member Paige Barnett, 11, said she enjoyed building the robot and likes learning more about science.

"It's a lot of fun, and it's really exciting," Andrew Connors said. "And nerve-wracking" teammate Hayden Ybarra, 13, chimed in.

"The kids enjoy it and look forward to it," Mary Connors said of the McKendree youth robotics camp.

The campers constructed robots earlier in the week using the Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kit.

This marked the second year for the robotics camp, which was last week and this week, Tournier said. About 40 local students, 9 to 14 years old, participated in each week of the camp.

The goal of the camp, Tournier explained, is to get youth "engaged and excited about science at a younger age."

The camp also introduces students and their parents to the FIRST Lego League and the different aspects of the competition.

"We want to reach out to as many children in our community and get them excited about robots and Legos as well as science and technology," Tournier said.

"Hopefully, they will someday be the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians or teachers."

Participants learned about gear ratios, locomotion and energy during the camp. The youths also constructed cars out of Legos and raced them earlier in the week.

"We want the students ... engaged in critical thought and problem-solving skills," Tournier said.

The robotics camp was paid for by a $12,000 grant from the National Defense Education Program through the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base.

The robotics camp concluded Friday afternoon with an award ceremony following the competition. The Robo Bros were recognized for their top score during the robotics competition, and The Brainiacs were honored for their top performance during the car race earlier in the week.

"We certainly hope they gain a love for Legos and robotics," Tournier said, "(and) a love of science and technology and a thirst for more knowledge."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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