TMCNet:  Designing a robot is learning by doing

[December 07, 2011]

Designing a robot is learning by doing

OTTUMWA, Dec 07, 2011 (Ottumwa Courier – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) — Building a robot isn't easy. Nor is it supposed to be. It's the challenges that bring out the best in these kids.

"The programmers have to learn a [computer language] that I don't teach them," said Ryan Johnston, who teaches engineering, physics and science at Ottumwa High School.

After school, he's been guiding students as they prepare for the First Tech Challenge, a voluntary science competition.

"I did it because I liked the idea of building a robot," said Jeff Wheaton, 18.

He'd been interested in robotics, but before joining this team, had only put computers together.

"Actually building a robot has been interesting." The two robots look and act, at times, like remote control cars. But these aren't toys.

"In a remote control car, everything is already programmed right out of the box," said Byron Merida, 16.

That means all the instructions were already placed in the toy. When students start on a robot, the "brain" doesn't even recognize the motor.

"It's like the difference between putting a frozen dinner in the microwave, or cooking dinner from scratch," added Roy Rummelhart, 16.

"We basically 'write' what we want the robot to do using a code," said Talitha Ford, who is one of the team members focused mainly on programming.

When the controller is pushed left, the wheels should move this way, she tells the brain. Later, they could tell the wheeled robot what to do with no outside instructions; the program they devise will give instructions as the robot moves along.

Or, it's supposed to move along. On the other side of the room, the machine Jeff was working on with fellow team member Colton Bailey, 16, was not moving. It was a little frustrating, but not too bad, the students said.

"As you can see, we do have challenges," Jeff said.

Their programming department, said Colton, was working on the problem.

He said four departments work together to help the team. Hardware, which builds the robot; programming, which gives the computer brain its instructions; logistics, which has been helping raise money through sponsors and getting the word out; and "recon," which finds the rules and other information needed to be successful.

"The idea is to build a robot that will pick up a racquetball and drop it in a container. In [another contest round] you can move a bowling ball and push it around the stadium." The state qualifier challenge locally will be Jan. 28, with 16 teams competing in Ottumwa. Only three go on to the state level. Whatever happens, these young people are learning.

"I just wanted to give them an experience," Johnston said. "This gives them a little bit different of a motivation. They're not doing it for a grade." These are smart kids, Johnston agreed, who are ambitious and energetic.

"Sometimes … I just have to help them focus that energy." ___ (c)2011 the Ottumwa Courier (Ottumwa, Iowa) Visit the Ottumwa Courier (Ottumwa, Iowa) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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