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SRCS students prepare for robotics competition

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FORT COVINGTON - A strange whirring sound fills a Salmon River Middle School classroom, immediately followed by young voices shouting, “Uh oh!” and “No, no!”

With a sigh of frustration, programmer Adam Hubbard, a sixth-grader at SRCS, resolutely picks a little machine off a strange-looking table and plugs it back into his computer. The still unnamed robot has just failed another mission - one it passed only minutes before. His teammates offer up a chorus of suggestions for what might have gone wrong and how to fix it.

Salmon River’s new middle school LEGO Robotics League is hard at work.

For years, high school students at SRCS have competed in the LEGO robotics Tech Challenge at Clarkson University, but this year administrators rolled out the younger robotics programs in the Mohawk, elementary and middle schools.

This year’s challenge from LEGO is entitled “Nature’s Fury” and is intended to inspire thought about storms, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters that people face every day all over the world. In the robotics portion of the program, students must design, build and program a small robot to complete disaster-related missions on a provided gaming field.

The first step is to construct the area out of - you guessed it - LEGOs. This year’s obstacles include trees, power lines, houses, trucks, large buildings and even a LEGO helicopter.

Then Challenge participants build a robot. SRCS’s middle school team rebuilt about 13 times before they settled on their current contender.

“We kept remaking it because it was either too wiggly, had too much power or was too complicated,” seventh-grader Hannah Oliver explained.

There are 10 missions in which a robot must do things such as take a branch off a tree without hitting power lines or knock over one building without disrupting another. Students decide what order to accomplish the missions and how many the robot should do at any one time.

In competition the team is scored on how well their robot performs each task. They receive points for victories, with deductions if a task is only partially accomplished. If they touch the robot after they set it free, they also receive deductions: each task needs to be pre-programmed. If something goes wrong on the fly, the students are expected to program on the spot to fix it.

The idea is that accidents happen just as often in real life, and there are no easy outs then either.

Hubbard expressed some nervousness about making last minute edits to power, rotation and direction of the little machine some students refer to as Poseidon and others call Floody Buddy. He swears it has a personality of its own, completing tasks fine one minute and rushing off in the wrong direction the next.

The team has only been working since December for their competition in March, getting a late start from the normal September kick-off as SRC worked out the specifics of the program’s first year.

“It’s been really fun watching them grow at this,” the team’s adult coach, Danielle Chapman, said.

Middle school Principal Tammy Russell agreed, saying how great it was to watch students make the connection between science and engineering.

“I like hearing them talk about all their strengths and weaknesses,” she said, as students explained how they were each approached by teachers to join the team because of their particular skills in certain subjects.

Besides robotics, students are also asked to do a project, identifying a community and a natural disaster that plagues that community and then researching solutions to subsequent problems. LEGO challenges them to innovate on current solutions to try to balance the best ways to protect people, buildings and the environment.

The team at Salmon River decided to focus on solving a problem in their own backyard: flooding in Fort Covington. That’s why they want to name their robot something water-related and why they’ll soon have shirts sporting the team name “Shamrock Waves.”

While their classmates are programming and building, other members of the team are preparing a presentation on the most common causes of flooding, including sediment and ice build-up, and why certain solutions to those problems are better than others. At competition they’ll be grilled by judges about the research they’ve done and the decisions they’ve made.

They’re currently recording an informational video to show alongside some handmade posters. Today the entire sixth-grade class at SRCS is participating in a science fair where the LEGO students are hoping to give their presentation a test run.

Post-competition, Ms. Chapman hopes to start up a LEGO robotics club, as she’s had many students wander into her classroom after school and witness the Shamrock Waves at work. It would give other students a chance to experience what some think is the best part — playing with what can only be described as an adult version of LEGOs.

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