- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

SACATON, Ariz. (AP) - There is something about a robot that fascinates kids - even if it is only 10 inches tall.

“I like watching how they move and stuff like that,” Sacaton fifth-grader Marcos Peters said.

Students in the Sacaton Middle School Science Club learned to program robots last month, and if they continue working on their programming skills, they can take their robots to the 13th annual RoboRAVE (Robots Are Very Educational) International competition May 1-3 in Albuquerque, N.M.

RoboRAVE co-founders Russ Fisher-Ives and Fabian Lopez helped Sacaton club members hone their competition skills.

Fisher-Ives said a robot’s “brain” is the microcontroller.

“That brain in there is where you put your intelligence,” he said. “If there’s no instructions in here, what kind of machine do we have? A stupid machine.

“Who’s going to make it intelligent? Your team. And if your team doesn’t know how - you talk to another team, because this is about learning from each other.”

The first two days of the competition will be spent practicing on the competition tracks and tweaking programs so the robots run better.

“If you’re ready to run and the track is open, you can go, run, score and then go back to your pit, make it better, go back and run again,” Fisher-Ives said. “Sometimes teams are running 15, 20, 25 times or more.”

The challenge events are on the third day, followed by a tournament among the top eight teams in each challenge. First-year teams, like those from Sacaton, typically compete in four challenges:

— The A-MAZE-ing challenge involves programming a robot to follow a maze without using any sensors. If the robot falls off the 1-inch-high track, it’s back to the pit to tweak the programming and try again.

— Jousting is attaching a “knight,” or metal water bottle, to a robot’s platform with three small magnets, attaching a lance to the side of the robot and programming it to use its high-contrast sensor to follow a line and knock the opposing team’s knight off its robot.

— Line following is building a lightweight delivery system and programming the robot to move it, follow a black line to a tower and deliver as many pingpong balls as possible in three minutes.

— The triathlon is scoring the highest cumulative score from the three challenges using the same robot and modifying it for the different events.

Fisher-Ives said some middle school teams may also compete in firefighting, locating and extinguishing four candles in three minutes without touching them.

Teams may earn points before April 1 by writing an engineering overview, finding corporate partners to send letters of support or making video about their robot.

“The videos are fun,” Lopez said. “Make it fun.”

Fisher-Ives and Lopez had taped practice tracks to the floor of the Sacaton Middle School gymnasium.

Each three-person student team was armed with a robot kit and a laptop computer provided by the school district.

Fisher-Ives linked arms with a student and showed how each robot had two wheels attached to two separate motors.

If both wheels moved equally, the robot went forward. If the right wheel froze and the left wheel moved, the robot turned right. The kids would have to figure out how to make their robots go forward to just the right place and turn at just the right angle.

Lopez projected his computer screen onto a movie screen to show how to use a graphical user interface to communicate with the robots.

The kids imitated on their computers every step he took. Fisher-Ives, Science Club coordinator Jo Ellen Kinnamon, Science Club builder Eduardo Caballero and Pinal County School Office technology specialist David Roman made sure every team completed every step before Lopez moved to the next one. Then the kids downloaded their programs into their robots and tested them.

Each trial was followed by cheers and groans. The robots rolled too far or not far enough. The kids reprogrammed them and tried again and again and again.

After the kids figured out how many wheel rotations their robot needed before they reached the turn they had to figure out how to turn their robot to the correct angle. There were more trials and reprogramming and whoops and groans. And that was just one event.

Seventh-grader Claey Jackson said he started doing robots because Kinnamon told him to. “I started liking it after,” he said, “‘cause I got to build stuff, and I like building things.”

“It’s pretty cool,” said eighth-grader Sistina Anton.

“I think ‘cause you get to use computers, and you get to build it.”

One of the parents watching the workshop, Marcos’ mother, Yvonne Peters, said, “It’s exciting to see them interact together, know it’s not just them. But they work as a team, and they’re learning.”

Jonas Williams’ father, Barry Williams, said, “I think it’s a very good idea. That’s the future. It’s exciting to watch them have fun with that stuff.”

“Our kids, they don’t always stay in school,” Kinnamon said.

“If they’ve got something like this that will keep them there for the four years and there’s a career in this,” maybe they will stay in high school and go to college.”

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