Tech savvy teens build on teamwork

Focus: Robots

It looks like a space age adaption of basketball. One high school student uses a remote to make the built-from-scratch robot maneuver around a required course, while the rest of the Culpeper Robotics Team analyze how effective the mechanical player is in picking up game balls and placing them in acrylic cylinders. The robot is playing a game. But it is more than a game. It is the application and demonstration of the skills of a team of eight high school students interested in computer programming and engineering.

This Varsity VEX Robotics Team, made up of high school seniors from public, private, and home schools, are preparing for the VEX Robotics World Championships to be held in Anaheim, California, April 22-26. Similar to basketball’s March Madness, the elimination tournaments result in the eligibility of five teams from each state to go to the world competition.

This is an exciting time for Culpeper Robotics, a non-profit educational program teaching the principles of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects through the use of the VEX Robotics Program. Members are divided into teams to learn skills necessary in the design, construction, and computer programming while creating their own robot.

“We teach them the basics. They learn to plan and work together,” said the club’s senior mentor Doug Ray.

The Culpeper Robotics Team is made up of 30 students from fourth through 12th grade. There are four separate teams: elementary school, middle school; and two high school teams. Except for the Varsity team, having participated last year, all of the other students began the school year with no experience in robotics. The yearly competition begins each year in May when a new challenge is presented for teams to design and build a robot performing specific tasks. The four teams work throughout the year building and rebuilding robots in hopes to win in their division.

The Culpeper club qualified all four of its teams for the State Championship, which included 120 teams throughout the state. While one of the high school teams made the quarter-finals, the other made the semi-finals, qualifying it to advance in the competition. The middle school team finished fifth overall in the competition and won the Design Award for their engineering notebook documentation of the design process.

Ray, a civilian engineer with the U.S. Army, said, “We started the season with mostly kids that had never worked before with this type of technology. And to see them work together as a team, develop solutions, and compete against more advanced teams and hold their own is very rewarding to all of us.”

This year’s high school game is set up where there are teams that compete and teams that ally with one another. Various teams may end up having its members in alliance with another team. All the competitors get to know each other well in case they play the game together rather than play opposite each other.

Compete and collaborate

Team member Tyler Baird, Eastern View High School, emphasized even though teams are competitive, they are also very cooperative with one another when a team has a mechanical problem. “During the state competition, half of our team helped other teams fix their robots so that they could compete. It was like karma because they ended up on our team,” said Baird.

Operating the robot requires the work of a coach and two drivers, each with a joystick. One driver moves the robot and the other driver manipulates the robot to carry out different functions. The two drivers need to coordinate using the joy sticks together. Homeschooler Devin smiled, “It’s not as hard as you think.”

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” added Baird.

Two people on the team can’t depend on trial and error. Daniel Wolverton, Eastern View, and Marissa Ray, Highland School, sit at the computer and program the robot’s movements. Marissa, Doug’s daughter, plans to attend Virginia Tech next year and hopes to major in electrical engineering. Knowing that she wanted to be an engineer when she was 12, she and Daniel have to put in four sets of codes. They have to figure sensors (line, light, sonar) and often get help from their mentors.

“All of these kids are amazing. They figure it out on their own. We may do some research, but they are doing 90 percent of the work,” said Ray.

Along with Doug Ray, Jennifer Bierhuizen and Josh Labrie are also mentors and parents of team members. In addition to Marissa, Ray’s son, Zach, is also on the team with the sons of Bierhuizen and Labrie.

Labrie started a robotics program while a teacher in Prince William County, with the help and financial support of Lockheed Martin. Although new in robotics at the time, he started a program which expanded to 100 students each year. He started summer camps with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). Now programming manager at NOVA, Labrie said the community college had 1,000 kids in the summer program this year. His interest is in workforce development. “Why not grow our own workforce. It’s nice to see this started in my own backyard. I can add value to the program, and the students do not have to go through all the mistakes I made.” Learning about the Culpeper Robotics Team, he got his own stepson, Baird, interested in participation.

Labrie is an advocate for the students learning to keep an engineer notebook and document what goes on with the process.

“Here’s what worked, didn’t work; here’s our plan. Labrie said the students learn to collaborate, manage their time–a lot of life skills.

And apparently, that’s just what this varsity team has done.

Corporate help and national support

Corporate sponsors for the Culpeper Robotic Club are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Precision Machines, Rappahannock Electric Company, SWIFT, and Cintas. Saint Lukes School donated the use of its Pavilion for the club to meet as a team, construct robots, practice trial runs, and store all of the building materials needed for the year.

On a national level, The Robotics Education & Competition Foundation (REC) coordinates events and seeks to increase student interest and involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by engaging students in hands-on sustainable and affordable curriculum-based robotics engineering programs across the U.S. and internationally. The REC Foundation develops partnerships with K-12 education, higher education, government, industry, and the non-profit community to achieve this goal.

For the 2014 World Championship, Northrop Grumman Foundation is sponsoring the event. Jason Morrella, president, REC Foundation said, “The Northrop Grumman Foundation recognizes the importance of hands-on, sustainable and affordable robotics engineering programs to increase student interest in the STEM fields and we greatly appreciate their increased support of the VEX Robotics Competition.”

“VEX Robotics is a tremendous program that creates great learning, team work and fun while exciting young minds in STEM,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Northrop Grumman Foundation. “As a global company, we are eager to support the expansion of VEX Robotics so more students worldwide have the opportunity to gain insight into the excitement of STEM and STEM careers and participate in this fun, yet challenging program.”

Culpeper Robotics Team

Tyler Baird, Eastern View High School, Culpeper

Ryker Bierhuizen, Eastern View High School, Culpeper

Devin Jewell, Homeschool

Marissa Ray, Highland School, Warrenton

Zach Ray, Homeschool

Caleb Smyth, Liberty High School, Warrenton

Jonah Smyth, Liberty High School, Warrenton

Daniel Wolverton, Eastern View High School, Culpeper