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Raising the flag: The VSHS team's robot succeeds in the final part of the contest.

Have you ever, while driving a remote controlled car, or playing a video game, wondered how the people who made that device did so? How do they allow the device in your hand to determine the direction of the machine you are trying to move?

For the past few years, several Vinton-Shellsburg High School students have been learning the many of the answers to those questions through the First Tech Challenge.

On Saturday, teacher Marsha Furlong and several VSHS students spent the day in the gym at Central Lutheran School in Newhall, comparing their robot (nicknamed Striker Eureka) to those from more than 20 other schools.

And the team members left Newhall knowing that their robot can compete with the best.

Students celebrated, exchanging high fives, as they watched their robot – without any human commands – place a yellow block in a basket (something few teams were able to accomplish) before rolling around the course and climbing a ramp.

Then, in the second part of the contest, with drivers Eli Rogers and Chris Ahlemeyer at the controls, the robot was able to pick up several more blocks and place them in baskets, pull itself off the ground and hang from a bar, and even raise a flag.

Of the 24 teams involved in Saturday’s competition, the VSHS team, which calls itself Trial and Error finished ninth. It was the best finish and highest score of any team in the few years that VSHS has competed in the First Tech Challenge.

After the first of six rounds, however, they were in last place.

Each of round included two alliances of two teams each, so each team relied on its partner school as well as its own programmers and drivers.

The first round, says Furling, was “a disaster.”

The VSHS robot had a problem with its autonomous program, and the robot from the other school on their alliance tipped over. In two of the six rounds, the VSHS team lost points because its partner’s robot was not able to remain on its wheels.

Yet, the team was successful enough to be chosen as a partner by one of the teams that made the finals.

Robot building (and programming)

Like every other First Tech Challenge team, the VSHS students begin the project with a collection of hardware, electric motors, a variety of wheels and a computer module. Every school in the nationwide program starts with the same materials, and competes on the same course. The students then must decide what kind of wheels to use for the robot, and what kind of mechanical arms to create and install to allow their robot to accomplish the most tasks in two and one-half minutes.

Senior Jacob Isbell was the main programmer; other students built the robot, experimenting with a variety of mechanical technologies before deciding on a final design. The students painted the robot gold, and added blue light bars underneath.

Multi-directional wheels help the robot to move from left to right, as well as forward and reverse. An extendable arm allowed the robot to raise itself on the bar, while a spinning sprocket raised the flag.

Participants from schools complimented Trial and Error on how their robot looks and how quickly it moves, said Isbell.

Despite the disastrous beginning, the VS team advanced through the standings as each round brought a higher score. While working with the eventual championship team from Humbolt, Trial and Error earned the highest score ever for a VSHS robotics team.\

Impact and opportunities

Yet, the success of the program is measured best by the impact it has on its students.

In addition to engineering and computer skills, the First Tech Challenge requires students to communicate with others.

A highlight of the season was when one of the girls on the team, whose job was communicating with other teams to plan strategy, came to Mrs. Furlong and said, “I’m not shy anymore!”

Organizer Rebecca Whitaker said she wishes something like this had been available for her in high school.

The First Tech Challenge offers one more way for students to get involved and gain confidence.

“I was not an athlete, and while I was in drama, I didn’t like it that much,” said Whitaker, who helped found the Iowa First Tech Challenge program several years ago. Iowa now has the third-largest program in the U.S., behind only California and Texas. This year, more than 1,500 students from across the state are involved in more than 160 schools.

The season ended on Saturday for most schools, including Trial and Error. The program will continue next year; Furlong said it will be up to one of the underclassmen to continue the programming after Isbell graduates.

See a previous story about the VSHS First Tech Challenge team HERE.

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