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2017-05-01 / Shorts

We, Robot

Local club competes in regional robotics competition
Maggie Anderson

This March, a group of local kids worked to shoot some wiffle balls in a hoop, carry gears across the floor and hang them on a peg, then climb a rope to win the game. Though that may sound like gym class, it was actually a hands-off test after some very hands-on planning for the Centre County 4-H Robotics team competing at the regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Pittsburgh.

It’s something the team has been working on since January, when the theme and tasks for the competition were announced.

“We decided we wanted to do a simple task but do it as well as possible,” says Zach Jester, the club communications officer who is home-schooled in State College. “We decided we would not focus on throwing the wiffle balls but spend most of our effort on getting the gears across the field and climbing the rope, because we figured that was the best way we could score points.”

The club, made up of eighth- through 12th-graders, worked for six weeks to strategize, design, 3D model, manufacture and troubleshoot their robot.

“We get a kit from the FIRST Robotics people, but that’s just the basic drive train,” says Bill Jester, Zach’s father and a club mentor. “Everything on top of that, all the other parts are different every year and the students have to do everything from design to manufacture.”

And that’s exactly how they like it. “We ended up getting all of our components 3D modeled, and I think that was the single biggest thing that contributed to our success,” says Jason Oakman, the club’s president and a senior at State College Area High School. “It was amazing. We didn’t have a single match where we broke down. Due to our emphasis on the reliability, we were really able to go for it each match.”

The team finished in second place in the qualifiers, which made them eligible for the playoffs.

“Last year we were ranked right in the middle of the pack,” says Bill Jester. “This year we ended up making it all the way to the semifinals. It was an amazing turnaround. It had a lot to do with the positive energy of the team, students making good decisions and good engineering choices.”

And while the robotics team is focused on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — the students learn a lot of different skills.

“It’s been a completely positive experience on my life,” says Oakman. “I always wanted to build stuff and work in engineering, so it’s like exactly what I wanted to do and it also got me into an environment where everyone else was working toward that goal, learning how to do cool stuff and build cool stuff.”

Bill Jester has seen what just two years in the club has done for his son. “It’s really given him a circle of people who have common interests. Obviously they’re getting a lot of practice in real hands-on engineering, but they’ve also had to learn some nontechnical skills. They had to go out to several of our potential sponsors and give presentations to adults, so some of those marketing and communication skills have been really valuable. It’s so much more than just putting together robots.”

This summer, even more kids will get the chance to build cool stuff via the First Lego League, a program geared toward fourth- through eighth-graders. To find out more, visit the CC4H Robotics’s build space at Channel Communications on May 10 for an open house about the new club.
For more information, visit centre4h-robotics.org.

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