Robots roar to life

By Dick Mason, The Observer December 03, 2012 03:26 pm

Eastern Oregon University student/volunteer judge Nathan Smutz, left, talks with Caleb Lathrop, middle, and Kendrick Johnson of Stella Mayfield School in Elgin following a round of competition Saturday at Eastern Oregon University. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer
Eastern Oregon University student/volunteer judge Nathan Smutz, left, talks with Caleb Lathrop, middle, and Kendrick Johnson of Stella Mayfield School in Elgin following a round of competition Saturday at Eastern Oregon University. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer

Misfortune occasionally has a positive spinoff and sometimes it is best to take the road less traveled. 

Anyone watching the annual Intel Oregon First Lego League regional qualifying tournament at the Eastern Oregon University Science Center on Saturday saw evidence of all this, plus at least 100 bright  young minds at work. 

The high school and junior high age students put their considerable intellectual horsepower on display while spending their day getting Lego robots they programed to complete often tricky assigned tasks. Teams of students from the Union, Elgin and Cove school districts received points for how well their robots did and were judged for performances on project presentations and core values. 

None of the students soared higher than the members of the “Gearsters,” an eight-student team from Union High School, which placed first overall, winning the Champion award. The Gearsters greeted the announcement that they had won with a release of pent up emotion. None were more excited than Josefa Cordero, who spoke about how she felt 10 minutes after it was announced her team had won. 

“I’m still shaking,’’  Cordero said.

Ryan Wallin credited his team’s success to its ability to work together while programming their robot for the tournament. He noted that his team never argued.

Wallin and Cordero are among eight members of the Gearsters. Joining them are Katrina Richard, Cheyenne Pulsipher, Camille Kestie, Brooke Scantling, Landon Houck and Harris Lackey.

All members of the winning team won $500 scholarships to EOU. The students will receive $500 annually for tuition for four years if they later attend Eastern. The Gearsters are among three teams from the regional tournament which qualified for the state tournament Jan. 19-20 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. Qualifying to join the Gearsters at state was “Glom” of Union High School, the champion runner-up and the “Red Bananabots,” a junior high team from the Union School District which won the Ace Award.

The obstacles senior citizens face and the favorite activities of seniors were the focus of the robotics tournament, whose theme was Senior Solutions. Teams received points for getting their robots to turn on a cardiovascular exercise machine, balance themselves while crossing a bridge, pull something off a tall shelf, pick up a quilt, bowl and more.

Bowling was one of the of the more interesting robot missions at the tournament. Teams had to get their robots to release a plastic ball in such a way that it knocked down small pins. Most teams had their robots roll to the top of a bowling lane and then release a plastic ball so that it rolled over the pins. At least one team, however, had its robot catapult a ball at the pins from a distance of several feet. The robot using the catapult method knocked down all the pins at least once.

Sometimes teams which appeared to suffer misfortune actually ended up better off for it.

Jaco Thompson, the head referee, noted that one robot fell after unsuccessfully trying to release a bowling ball. Fortunately, the robot fell in such a way that it activated another device on board, accidentally allowing a task to be completed, adding to the team’s point total.

Landon Houck, left, and Harris Lackey of the Union High School Gearsters robotics team mentally will their robot through its test course. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer
Landon Houck, left, and Harris Lackey of the Union High School Gearsters robotics team mentally will their robot through its test course. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer
 

Between competitive rounds, teams adjusted the programs of their robots so they would better complete tasks. Changes were sometimes needed because the lighting and boards students had practiced on at their schools were a little different at EOU.

“Teams which made adjustments quickly did the best,’’ said Greg Poor, the coordinator for the Union School District’s LEGO  robotics program. 

In the project segment teams often made presentations on devices they had developed plans for to help seniors. The “Save Our Seniors” team from Union made a  presentation on a watch it  designed. The timepiece would activate a beeper on eyeglasses when misplaced and alert emergency personnel when the person wearing the watch had fallen.

Colin Sheehy said the watch was essentially an advanced version of the electronic devices many seniors wear to notify emergency personnel if they need help.

The SOS team developed its project idea after meeting with at least one senior to find out what challenges people over 65 face. All teams entered in the tournament were required to meet with at least one senior while working on their project. Dawson Kennon of the SOS  said he learned a lot from his team’s senior meeting.

“It was great to know how other people think,’’ the eighth-grader said. 

Poor said the requirement that students meet with seniors was  a real plus.

“It was neat to see kids make these connections and learn about senior citizens,’’ Poor said. “It is important to get this generation connecting with the older one. It does not happen as much as it used to.’’ 

Poor is the coach for the Union ninth graders in the program and Nod Palmer, also a science teacher at UHS, is the coach for the eighth graders. Students work on robotics at UHS in class because it is part of its curriculum. However, they also spend much time after school working on their robotic projects. Poor said that in the month before the tournament at EOU, 10 to 20 students would stay after school each day working on robotics projects. Most stay until the school building closes at 4:30 p.m.

“We have to kick them out,’’ Poor said. “I have never seen a program in all my years of teaching that so many students will voluntarily stay after school to work on.’’

The science teacher said the success of the program is in part a credit to EOU, which has hosted the tournament annually since 2004.

“EOU does an absolutely phenomenal job,’’ Poor said.

The Union School District had nine teams at the tournament. They were joined by four teams from the Elgin School District and at least two from the Cove School District.