Robots and personality a futuristic mix at Harrisonville school

jlondberg@demo-mo.comDecember 19, 2015 

Robots stowed away in closets at Harrisonville High School could make the fans of “I, Robot” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots” uneasy as they recall the tales where creations strike back against their creators.

But those roaming the hallways at the high school need not worry: the robotics teams at the school are concerned with programming their robots to move and pick items up; they aren’t programming them to think.

Harrisonville students are striving to achieve those simple goals in time for their second robotics competition, scheduled for Jan. 30.

Though the robotics program has been offered to high school students for many years, this year is the first that middle-school students are participating in the program.

And on Dec. 12, two middle school teams and one high school team competed at Smithville High School. It was the middle school students’ first taste of competition with their creations.

“We ended up in the middle of the pack,” said Dan Deatherage, the seventh-grade science teacher and assistant coach of the teams. Two middle-school teams finished 11th and 16th, and the high-school team finished 17th.

“But placement isn’t the big thing,” Deatherage said. “They got experience when things went wrong, and then watching them recover from that and getting that engineering process moving — that was the good part.”

At the teams’ last tune-up before the competition, Brayden Gillespie, 13, said he and his team built a robot with a claw to scoop up materials and drop them in buckets, one goal of the competitions.

Another robot built by middle-school students moves on green tracks like a tank.

“Before I started, I didn’t really know how a robot moves,” Brayden said. “I didn’t have a full picture of it, so that’s what really shocked me — that it actually moved.”

The middle-school students began working on their robots about two months ago. Students are split into distinct roles on their teams: designers, builders, programmers and pit crew — think NASCAR mechanics, only for robots.

The robots are powered by a battery. Two Android phones are programmed to communicate with each other. One phone takes instructions from a game controller and sends those instructions to another phone, which relays the commands to the robots.

Competitions challenge the robots in a series of simple tasks, such as picking up balls or other small objects, placing the items in buckets and ascending an inclined plane.

Last year, Harrisonville’s team competed in the First Tech Challenge, where the goal was to place wiffle balls into tubes at varying heights off the ground.

Chase Laizure, now a sophomore, competed with last year’s team.

“Our robot was not of the mainstream. The first competition, we didn’t have a system to put balls in,” Chase said. “Then we found out defense was a better run.”

The robots compete in pairs, so Chase and his team realized their robot would be better served blocking opponents’ robots from scoring the balls in the tubes.

The defensive robot and strategy were so successful that it led them all the way to a state-wide competition.

“We called her Bertha,” Chase said. “Your robot kind of develops a personality. (Bertha was) a little shorter, heavier built.”

This year, Chase mentors the younger students. During a recent tuning session, Chase and sophomore Kelly Shea were working on a test bench or board, where the drive system, electronics and pneumatic components — the innards of the robots — are laid out on a sheet of plywood rather than confined and hidden inside a metallic body.

“This simplifies it. If we get a new piece of hardware, we put it on the test bench first before putting it in the system,” Chase said.

Deatherage said the robotics class gives students the autonomy to discover solutions on their own.

“We’re allowing them to explore and learn,” Deatherage said. “I can’t use my background knowledge to solve problems for them.”

Garrett Brown, a seventh-grade programmer in the robotics class, said the self-initiated learning has been one of his favorite aspects.

“We don’t get told what to do. We figure it out along with the teachers,” Garrett said. “It gives you a challenge.”

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