SODA students strive to rule robotics

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From BEST Robotics to RoboRAVE to Botball, the computerized robots that middle school and high school students are producing are phenomenal.

Made with scraps of metal, plastic, wires, toy tires and computer brains, the robots they create display creative innovation, calculation and ingenuity.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: The School of Dreams Academy has several robotics teams. The Botball team, who competed at NMSU last month, includes, in front, from left, Denton Shaver and Keith Wright, in back, from left, Keva Howe, Victoria Troyer and Danielle Garcia.

At the School of Dreams Academy, students are producing machines and drones you really have to see to fully appreciate.

The technological savvy these youngsters exhibit is remarkable.

SODA students have been competing at the state and international level for about two years.

Last month, a group of students competed in Botball at the state level in Las Cruces at New Mexico State University.

“The course this year was based off of marine systems and conservation,” said team leader Danielle Garcia, a sophomore. “So, we have, like, a fish farm, which is a Frisbee that you put ping-pong balls as talapia (a type of fish), and then you have a marine protected area as well to put in brain coral and reef starters. They are foam balls and blocks.”

The object is for the robots to successfully perform certain tasks, such as delivery and retrieval, to collect points.

“There’s multiple things you can go after and put in certain places to collect points,” Garcia said. “It’s how you go about it that they assess the challenge.”

Each student had two robots with two different functional capabilities.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: School of Dreams Academy sophomore Chloe Grubb demonstrates an autonomous, flying drone robot at an event at the Daniel Fernandez Youth Center.

The competition consisted of middle and high school students from pre-engineering and art classes.

There were 14 teams competing from across the state, said freshman Denton Shaver.

Out of five overall winning teams, the SODA middle school team, led by eighth-grader Victoria Troyer, won third place overall.

The high school team, led by Garcia and junior Keva Howe, won fifth place overall. Out of four winning teams, the SODA team also won in the Double Elimination and Seeding categories.

Therefore, the students qualify to compete in the International Botball KIPR Open Tournament, which will take place July 18-22 at the 2012 Global Conference on Educational Robotics held at the Hawaii Convention Center. They hope to go, they said.

Last year, the SODA teams went to the conference held in California. During the trip, they also visited the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

“It was mind blowing, actually,” Garcia said. “Just seeing how what we’re doing can be used for NASA, because we got to see the new Mars rover, the replica that they’re making. What we’re learning now affects so many things.”

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Danielle Garcia, a sophomore at SODA, wants to be a marine biologist and is interested in robotics for the part it can play in that career field.

The students said you need to know math to be able to build and program the robots, but more importantly, you have to be able to apply it to real-life robot projects.

“You don’t have to be amazing in math to do it, but …” Garcia said.

“But you have to think outside the box,” says Howe.

“Yeah, you have to be really creative,” Garcia said.

It’s a lot of critical thinking and problem solving, said Shaver.

“A lot of it just depends on how much effort you put in,” said Troyer.

Robotics is a different approach to learning math. It can give students incentive to learn through building and programming the robots.

“To be an outstanding engineer, you need to have the creativity most people think of when they think of great artists,” said Creighton Edington, SODA’s math and robotics teacher.

Several students said they gained an interest in mathematics through the program.

“When I was doing programming, it’s kind of interesting how you can apply math to it,” Garcia said. “You don’t think that you’re actually, physically using it until you actually see it, and it works the way you wanted it to.”

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Cierra Mason, a sophomore at the School of Dreams Academy in Los Lunas, helped design and build the robot for a FIRST Robotics competition held in Chandler, Ariz.

“Once you see what you’ve done, it’s like ‘wow,’” said Howe.

Learning how to code the computer program for the robot’s movements is like learning another language, the students said.

The exposure to robotics has ignited their enthusiasm not only for math and engineering careers, but how robotics are being used in a wide variety of career fields.

“I’m doing this for experience, to help figure out what I want to be,” said Howe. “And I do this because I like it.”

“It really opened up a lot of job options, too,” said Troyer. “Like, I never would have even thought of being an engineer last year, but it just shows how much it opens your eyes.”

“I want to be a marine biologist,” said Garcia. “But I also want to learn computer language for how much it can apply to other aspects.”

“I’ve always wanted to be an engineer since, like, the fifth grade,” said eighth-grader Keith Wright. “Except this has actually helped me to really understand what engineering is about.”

Earlier this year, a 16-member SODA team competed in the biggest robotics competition, the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in March in Chandler, Ariz.

They took home the Rookie Inspiration Award and placed 15th out of 50 in the seeding rounds.

“They did pretty well, which is amazing for a first-year team,” said Eric Brown, SODA’s science, robotics and pre-engineering teacher.

The team’s biggest sponsors were NASA and JC Penney at Coronado Mall in Albuquerque.

JC Penney store manager Ernesto Gutierrez visited the school to see the robot and meet the students.

Teams are given a standard set of parts and the game details early in January with six weeks to construct the robot that can be operated autonomously or by remote control. The robots are large, weighing up to 120 pounds, said SODA sophomore Cierra Mason,

It is open to both middle school and high school students, but it was mainly high school students, said Mason.

“The name of the game this year was Rebound Rumble, so it was obviously basketball themed,” she said. “And we have a little video on YouTube for it, too.”

The robot they built picks up a basketball and shoots it into a hoop.

At an event at Daniel Fernandez Park in Los Lunas, SODA had a booth with robots on display.

Gov. Susana Martinez visited the event.

“She drove the robot around and shot (a basket with) it,” Mason said of the governor.

The team also took their robot down to the White Sands test facility to give a presentation last Saturday.

“Because FIRST Robotics is the biggest competition … everybody wants everybody to get into it,” said team member Robert Dixon, a junior.

The school’s robotics accomplishments are attracting outside interest and have attracted attention from Sandia National Laboratories.

Brandon Rohrer and David Novick, who work for Sandia in robotics, volunteered to mentor students.

SODA middle school students recently competed in a RoboRAVE International contest at the Albuquerque Convention Center on Saturday, May 5.

The contest was affectionately called, “Cinco de ‘Bot-o,” and the robots were designed to search and extinguish four candles.

“We have 10 teams,” said Brown. “Mr. Edington and I decided that we wanted our middle school kids to participate in at least one contest. This was one we could get a bunch of them to do.”

The students learned to write the programming for autonomous robotics for the fire fighting challenge and a line following challenge.

“You can use any kind of brain system to build your robot, and a lot of them will be using Lego MindStorm, but we use the brain system that we have for our Botball teams,” Brown said. “So, while other teams are doing this block coding, we’re actually writing the code.”

Motor and velocity command codes are written using words and mathematical formulas.

“They’re actually doing programming, like real world programming,” said Edington.

All of SODA’s firefighting teams passed the morning qualifying round to compete in the afternoon.

“There were high school teams from other schools that failed to pass the qualification round,” said Edington. “So it is a significant accomplishment that all of the SODA middle school teams got qualified.”

SODA teams have also competed at the Supercomputing Challenge Expo at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and in a drone competition using an autonomous, flying robot. They finished fourth and fifth out of 26 registered teams. The first-place winner was a college team.

Competing in RoboRAVE International gives students the opportunity to learn some of the 21st century workforce skills most sought after by employers, such as designing, programming, troubleshooting, research, innovation, communication and teamwork.

Robots are changing the fields of manufacturing, health care, national defense, agriculture and transportation.

To see the SODA FIRST Robotics video search YouTube for “First Robotics 2012,” or “Rebound Rumble.”

The school’s website is www.sodacharter.org, and the SODA robotics website is www.room340.webs.com.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.