Amid clusters of busy kids, attentive adults and the hum of conversations, Lego robots weighing less than 5 pounds trundled about their programmed tasks on a billiards-like table depicting outer-space-themed imagery, while in another room, a 30-pound device moved to and fro mining “minerals” across an extraterrestrial landscape.
The community robotics event, hosted in Schreiner University’s new STEMzone building on Thursday, brought together kids from private, public and homeschooled backgrounds.
Recent Tivy High School graduate Ethan VanFossen, 18, spoke quickly and expertly about the large, remote-controlled robot attempting to pick up different-shaped objects from one location to deposit in another — a simulated mining operation. The robot, constructed by members of his team of high school-aged kids — Fellowship of the Robot — was composed of about $4,000 in parts, he said. The youths raised money for the robot by hosting fundraisers, such as robot demonstrations at Grape Juice and a farmers market, and by writing a grant proposal to the Hal and Charlie Peterson Foundation.
“We had to do that primarily ourselves,” said VanFossen, stressing the student-driven nature of the entire endeavor.
“It’s personally an awful lot of fun for me as well,” he said. “While our coaches are there, we still go about solving the problems our own ways.”
VanFossen, his communications skills honed by 15 years of local theater, acts as the team’s presenter — a vital role, since the robotics championships require presentations. At the competitions, each team has a 12-by-12-foot booth to showcase its work — simulating a high-tech trade show environment.
The Fellowship of the Robot team won second place in the Alamo FIRST Tech Challenge Regional Championship in New Braunfels three months ago. It also has gone up against, or cooperated with, international teams, including some from China, Brazil and Mexico, allowing VanFossen to use the Spanish he picked up while attending Tivy.
“While it is a competitive environment, it is one you can learn from,” VanFossen said. “There’s so much you can learn from talking to students and interacting with them.”
VanFossen, who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, said he’s going to attend Schreiner University for a communications design degree and pursue an advertising/marketing career.
Eleven-year-old Kendall Gregory worked on her Lego robot team in a research and problem-solving capacity. The team was given the task of researching problems related to zero-gravity environments and coming up with a solution. Gregory found that deteriorating muscles — especially the heart muscles — and declining bone density were associated with zero gravity, so her team came up with a possible way for astronauts to get the exercise in space they need in order to slow down the body’s deterioration. Current harnesses make it difficult for astronauts to exercise in space.
“We used constant-pressure springs instead of bungees,” Gregory said.
Homeschooler Hudson Gately, 17, of Kendall County, said robotics competitions are a great way for kids to find out whether they’d want to study mechanical engineering or science. His team has attended world championships 10 times and has fundraised and written grants to pay for seven robots.
“Try it out, see if you like it — it definitely would be a good gauge of whether or not you’d be suited for that,” Gately said
His mother, robotics coach Kathleen Gately, said she wants to help Schriener University start its own robotics team for college students, which she said may cost from $4,000 to $6,000.
Scott Gossett was at the event with his wife, son and daughter to find out what it would take to start a robotics program at the small Christian school he runs in Pipe Creek.
“We’ve got several (students) who really like building with Legos, and I think they’re ready to take it to beyond playing,” Gossett said.