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VOL. 128 | NO. 101 | Thursday, May 23, 2013

Strategic Science

Robotics competition makes technology priority for high school students

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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Horn Lake High School students Pamela Ponce, 18, and Chris Sevigney, 18, work on a frisbee-throwing robot with Medtronic mentor Matt Samuels during a FIRST! Robotics demonstration. 

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Memphis high school students guided Frisbee-flinging robots around a large room at Medtronic Spine’s headquarters.

The robots were built to compete in FIRST Robotics – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – an international high school robotics competition designed to inspire and expose young people to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Medtronic Spine sponsored and provided engineer mentors to teams from Horn Lake, St. Mary’s Episcopal, Craigmont and Hamilton high schools.

Demario Green, a sophomore at Craigmont, was at a fall festival when he spotted students showcasing a basketball-throwing robot.

“I was really interested in it because I love designing,” he said.

The robot inspired Green to join the FIRST Robotics team at Craigmont. At first, he said the team’s lure was the competition. But as the team worked on its robot and traveled to competitions, Green said his perspective changed.

“The competition isn’t really what this is all about … ,” he said. “It’s actually about strategy and getting to know your teammates.”

Each year, teams of high school students work with professional engineers and adult mentors to build a robot in a six-week timeframe using a standard parts kit and a common set of rules.

The robots compete in games designed by a committee of engineers and professionals. Teams compete in regional competitions that culminate in an international FIRST Robotics Championship that brings together more than 10,000 students from around the world.

This year’s FIRST Robotics competition challenge was Ultimate Ascent, where matches were played between two alliances of three teams each. The alliances competed by trying to score as many discs into their goals as possible during timed matches. The matches included robots attempting to climb pyramids located in the middle of the field.

“We had a defensive robot and a climber,” Green explained. “There was one robot that got all the way to the top, and I was just amazed. I was a little interested in engineering before, but now I have a big interest because of robotics.”

Eric Epperson, senior director of public relations for Medtronic Spine, said the competition is a fun way to get young people interested in engineering and math at an early age.

Medtronic Spinal employees watch a Frisbee-throwing robot during a FIRST! Robotics demonstration at Medtronic.

“They also get to see a practical application of those skills, and through their experience with their Medtronic mentors they get a little more familiar with our business,” he said. “In addition to the dollars needed to build these robots, this is really about engineering and teamwork.”

Epperson said Medtronic supports programs like FIRST Robotics to help ensure a continuous pipeline of Mid-South innovators and to encourage a future generation of scientists and engineers.

Volunteer engineering mentors like Matt Samuels, a quality technician at Medtronic Spine, help students troubleshoot challenges and provide guidance throughout the robot-building process. Samuels, who volunteered as a mentor to students at Horn Lake, said it was fun to see the students build functional robots from start to finish.

“We are really just there to help the kids if they get stuck somewhere in the process,” he said. “I helped a little with the technical and mechanical side of it, but they really did most of the work.”

Samuels traveled to St. Louis with the Horn Lake team to compete in the regional competition.

“It was just wild,” he said. “To actually see the kids put in the time and have something that works in the end, it was really cool.”

Horn Lake senior Pamela Ponce said she initially joined the robotics team her junior year because she was concerned about not being involved in enough extracurricular activities for college applications. She said a friend who was then a junior at the University of Mississippi suggested the robotics team.

“It was really because of the people that I stuck with it, but gradually I became more interested in the engineering process,” she said. “You have to be really flexible and adapt to many different ideas. Then there is also the stress that is produced by the limited time to build a robot, the technical configuration and even just the math needed to figure out what you are going to do.”

The Horn Lake team won the judge’s award this year for a simple, consistent and efficient robot. Late this summer, Ponce will head to the University of Mississippi, where she plans to major in engineering.

“Prior to joining robotics, I was unsure,” she said. “It’s taught me perseverance and hard work.”

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