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The robot's wheels roll forward as well as left or right, with casters allowing four-way movement.

Just a few steps from the Vinton-Shellsburg High School library is a 60-inch 3D television set with several video game controllers.

Twice a week, nine students eagerly walk from their last class of the day to that room.

But it’s not the TV that draws them, or the video games.

It’s a chance to build a robot.

Those nine – Celia Turner, Kendra Peterson, Caitlyn Martin, Jacob Isbell, Jacob Gosse, Eli Rogers, Chris Ahlemeyer, Devin Tollefson, Zach Uthoff, Matt Upmeyer and Ricky Martin – are members of the 2013-14 VSHS First Tech Challenge team.

Their job: Program and build a robot to pick up a variety of blocks, place them (evenly if possible) in crates on a balance bar), navigate to and climb a ramp without any human guidance, and raise a flag.

This year’s First Tech Challenge course is titled “Block Party.”

As in previous years, the Challenge attracts students who are quite willing to spend the time it takes to program and build a robot.

“All I have to do is say ‘robot’ and they show up,” says teacher Marsha Furlong, who has taught engineering and computer programming classes at VSHS for several years.

This year’s team, with Jacob Isbell as lead programmer, is well ahead of previous teams in terms of preparation, said Furlong. They have already finished much of the programming and have begun practice with the robot, which recently acquired the name “Striker Eureka.”

“Some years, we have been programming the computer up until the day of the event,” explains Furlong. “But this year we have already had much time for practice.”

The programming, building, practicing and tweaking takes place after school two days a week. Most of the students attend each session, although a few have other activities that keep them away at times.

The students share a variety of tasks: Programming the computer and the several modules and motors that move the wheels and the mechanical arms, building the robot to accomplish the designated tasks, documenting the processes, creating videos and preparing for two contests. Other team members have also designed logos and ties for the team members to wear.

The rules regarding the robot are very specific, even limiting the size of the robot to 18-inches in length, width and height.

"They have an 18-inch box they place over each robot at the competitions to make sure it's within the size limits," says the teacher.

In addition to learning more about computers, programming, building and other technical skills, the students are learning team work and other intangible things.

The three girls on the team, says Furlong, have "come out of their shells," gaining the confidence to speak up.

Since Isbell is a senior, another project for him this year, says Furlong, is mentoring an underclassman who can do the programming next year.

The school team has the official competition number 3548; this year’s participants have dubbed their team “Trial and Error,” in reference to the many aspects of the project in which they have had to improve upon their first attempts.

The team has about six weeks before the first of two contests. The first takes place Jan. 18, in Cedar Rapids. Benton Community will host the second event, which takes place Feb. 8, in Newhall. Both events are all-day Saturday competitions. The teams will compete four at a time, in two two-school teams. The VSHS students will not learn which teams they compete with or against until the day of the event.

See a video representing the objectives of the event below:

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Comments (1)

Way to go team!! Happy to see you continuing to pursue robotics and all that it entails. Good luck!
By: Kathy Turner on December 19th 10:04pm

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