Robots to the rescue

Some members of the Martin team: Paul Laux, Nicholas Kocurek, Parker Alanis, Benjamin Kocurek, Jeffrey Wallace and Kelly McCollough.

North Texas students are getting caught in the “CROSSFIRE!”
Teams of students from across the Metroplex have been designing, building, testing and learning to drive a machine for this year’s Cowtown BEST robotics competition. The competition, or games, got underway last month.
Martin High School hosted the kickoff event last month. This year’s competition rules and objectives were revealed at that event. Students also learned this year’s games theme, which is “Crossfire,” robotics in firefighting.
Martin High School is one of several Arlington ISD schools competing in the Cowtown BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology). The Martin Warrior Robotics team was created during the 2010-2011 school year and has grown to more than 100 students. Team Captain Jeffrey Wallace says they put a lot of effort into recruiting for this year.
“We have students from every high school grade level and from various different extra curricular activities,” says Wallace.
Kelly McCollough, an MHS Engineering and Robotics Teacher, is a Warrior Robotics faculty sponsor and coach. She says the team is composed of approximately 75 percent male and 25 percent female students.
So, how does the robotics team differ from other extracurricular activities? “While other clubs often focus on very specific interests that students may have, on the robotics team we have jobs for students of almost any interest,” says Wallace. “There is much more to the robotics team than engineers and programmers.”
The teams taking part in the Cowtown BEST have six weeks to design and build their machines. The robots must perform a series of complex tasks in a three-minute time period, using only a list of approved supplies given by the game organizers.
This year’s designated tasks are rescuing a mannequin, moving stacked barrels (paint cans) from the fire scene to safety, and extinguishing a fire that is being simulated by launching plastic golf balls at plastic cups. One of the team’s sponsors notes these are very challenging tasks, considering the limited number of motors and supplied materials. “Try to imagine,” he says, “making a device that shoots plastic golf balls accurately over a distance using only plywood, PVC pipe and similar items.”
The students will have some help from the Arlington Fire Department and the AISD Fire Academy. According to AFD Assistant Chief David Stapp, several ranks will be interviewed and that information will be used to help the students better understand what the department does and best design the robot. He says, “The Arlington Fire Department is pleased to lend our technical expertise to assist AISD students in this unique competition.”
Students spend countless hours working on their project. Before the season starts, the Warriors meet for about an hour and a half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Once the season begins, they meet every day. And later in the season, they often stay after school for more than three hours. There is no final grade or extra credit points for being a member of the robotics team. The students are there because they want to be there.
But it does have a benefit.
“We have so many students that enjoy solving problems and working together as a team,” says Wallace. “It also allows us to apply some of the knowledge and skills that we learn in our STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes.”
While these robots may be fun to play with, they are far from just a “toy.”
“A toy robot, even a kit, comes with a predetermined set of possibilities or functions. The robots built in the BEST competition are designed for a particular set of tasks or purpose,” says Paul Laux, a Warrior Robotics faculty sponsor and coach. “It almost always has the basic mobility-and-drive-by wireless controller features – but after that the team has decided what the robot will have as hardware and what it will be able to do. The design is done with the goal to score well and solve the challenges of the competition.”
And students are gaining real world experience. “The team is an excellent example of how area educators are seeking to make relevant the coursework students experience in high school,” says McCollough. “They are challenged by real-world problems and are asked to explain and defend their work. Their experiences in BEST also provide a platform for students to develop the soft skills of teamwork, collaboration and communication that will serve them regardless of their career path choices.”
The regional competition will be held at Nolan Catholic High School on Oct. 21. It is a University Interscholastic League (UIL) sanctioned event. The Warriors will compete for the opportunity to attend the state competition, which takes place at the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco in December. Last year, the MHS team advanced to the state competition.
“It is about so much more than a robot,” says Laux. “Marketing, spirit, planning, logistics, documentation, budgeting, time management, decision making, counting costs (and not just money) … it takes a team to pull this off successfully.”

Toni Randle-Cook

Toni Randle-Cook is a contributing writer for AT Magazine.