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Teenagers find success, future in robotics competitions



Robotics____Otto
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Robotics students work on Otto, their scratch-built robot they are taking to Auburn University for a national regional BEST competition. From left are senior Ryan Yother, junior Fadel Gueye, freshman Kyle Castellano and volunteer advisor Dana Burnham. hat. (click for larger version)

Robotics____Drill
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Senior Jacob Barnett and freshman Kelsey Broka are building an arm for Otto. Hatcher Hurd. (click for larger version)
December 07, 2009
FORSYTH COUNTY Come to Room 2234 most days after school at West Forsyth High School and you will find students working in twos, threes and fours around computers, drills and a boxy little robot named H2-Otto.

They are group of budding engineers, scientists and programmers who make up the robotics club at West Forsyth and are getting a good deal of attention for their work. Already this year teams from West Forsyth won a 1st and second place at a VEX robotic tournament as well as the Best Creative Design. These guys have already qualified for national competition in March.

But there are nine competitions available to the team in a variety of robotic organizations. Next weekend around two dozen of the more than 35 "committed" members will take little Otto in the BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) Robotics Championships regional competition to try to earn a trip to Dallas, Texas, and the nationals there.

It is all part of a pre-engineering pathway Forsyth County Board of Education has begun. It is a three-year course that prepares students to go on to college or straight into the workforce. David Johnson is the program's teacher and advisor to the robotics club.

He said engineering is one of the hot skills to have for the coming years. Engineering technology will be the basis of manufacturing.

"We will need people to design this equipment, will need people to service and keep the equipment running. This is how manufacturing will be done in the future. Robotics will be a big part of this," Johnson said.

Senior Elise Williard is CEO of the robotics team headed to Auburn Dec. 12. It is her second year in the program. In her first engineering class, Johnson told the students about the robotics class, and Elise was interested.

"It was not what I expected. It was more fun really. You get real close to a lot of kids you didn't know," she said.

As CEO of their project, she has many of the duties of a corporate CEO, and that is no accident. BEST competitions are not just about the robots. The team must create a company, a marketing plan and design a logo and a T-shirt. They are required to keep a notebook of what they did and someone makes an oral presentation. They also create a Web site.

"It's my job to see that all of that gets planned and done," Elise said. "I started on this last summer. Our robot had some problems at the state competition, but we still came in third overall because of all the other stuff that we did."

Johnson said the students learn other important skills, such as problem-solving, working cooperatively within a group and thinking

creatively.

In the competition, each team is presented with a box of materials a box of junk, Johnson calls it from which they must create a robot that must perform certain tasks to accomplish the goal of the problem.

"It contains some small motors and a programmable brain. But a BEST competition is box of junk you turn into a machine," Johnson said.

Other competitions are different. Since two teams from the club placed first, second and won for best overall design, West Forsyth students will participate in national VEX finals.

"That is a souped-up Erector Set," Johnson said. "You don't have to start so much from scratch."

A big part of the program has been the support of a local electronics company, Automation Direct, a manufacturer and distributor of electronic sensors, motors, programmable circuits and more. The company has contributed $50,000 annually to county school robotics programs, plus product donations.

"We realized early on what a perfect fit this was for our company," said Chip McDaniels of Automation Direct. "Over the years the robotics program has really taken off. We're very pleased to see how much traction [Forsyth County schools] are getting.

"All we do is give them money. The kids, the mentors and the teachers are doing all the work."

McDaniel said the robotics program is really starting to take off now that the school system has introduced the pre-engineering track in schools.

"Now in addition to the afterschool stuff these kids might be doing with their robotics club, they can start working with some of it during actual classroom time. We think that is a very positive step also," McDaniel said.

Another benefit for Automation Direct is the clubs become a feeder system for their summer internships.

"We already know where to go to find the best and brightest candidates," he said.

The students in the pre-engineering program reap other benefits in the classroom, Johnson said. When they see the real-world applications of what they learn in class, information they can use in their robotics competitions, it sharpens them in a number of ways.

"I have had other teachers tell me many students who were low-performers in their classes have made huge gains after coming into the pre-engineering program. And some of the work they are doing in here is just phenomenal, like 3-D modeling [on computer]. They are doing things I can't."

He also noted students graduating from such engineering programs in high school have higher graduation rates in college, where most perform with academic distinction. The robotics clubs just reinforce all of that.

"These kids are at school early waiting for me to open the door. They stay late to work on projects, and all of our meets are on weekends. This is school and they don't even know it," Johnson said.

"The value of this to overall education is beyond measure."

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