Wichita home-school students making strides in robotics competition

03/01/2014 9:43 AM

05/27/2014 9:28 AM

A robot made for the BEST — Boosting, Engineering, Science and Technology — competition is much more than a collection of pincers, claws, wheels and a few rubberbands.

A lot more.

This year it was transistors, gates, circuits — and lots of duct tape. It’s a throwdown of robotic intelligence and capabilities, all crafted by students in middle school and high school.

Wichita-area homeschool students, ages 12-18, make up the Warriors, the Wichita Homeschool Robotics team. The Warriors, consistent winners in state and regional competition, compete against other public and private schools.

Although currently out of season, the Wichita Homeschool Robotics team is still participating in events to raise funds and spread awareness, sometimes by demonstrating last year’s robot.

Since its inception 14 years ago, the Warriors have had 15 first-place finishes at the regional competition in Fort Smith, Ark., and 13 first-place finishes in the state of Kansas.

Sara Harms, a senior, said one reason the team does so well is partly due to the older students in the group.

“When we have seniors, they always teach the younger people how to do it,” she said. “So they teach them before they move on with other things.”

David Alexander, who runs the team, said the Wichita competition has steadily grown stronger in the 11 years he has been involved.

“When we first came to the team, we were considerably, point wise, above all the other schools,” Alexander said. “We set this bar and they started chasing us, and the bar continually gets raised.”

The team is made up of 45 homeschool students. From there, the team is grouped into two sides: the builders of the robot and the “BEST” side.

The BEST group puts together a 30-page notebook that details how the robot was designed. The students give an oral presentation and try to market the robot to the judges.

Nehemiah Nicholson is in his first year on the team.

“I would say my favorite part is the building,” Nicholson said. “And the experience of working with other people.”

Teams are given six weeks to design a CPU — central processing unit — that needs to complete certain tasks in an allotted amount of time. Harms, who has been with the team for four years, said each season the robot looks different depending on the tasks.

“We hear the challenge and everybody gets to say an idea they have, and then the team builds on it,” said Harms, who is a manager for the BEST group. “It may be the same person each year or it may be someone else … we work pretty well together.”

The competition floor is divided into four sections: yellow, blue, green and red. During the competition, a team completes a task in one of the sections. After time is up, the teams rotate.

One student is the spotter and the other drives the crank for the robot, which resembles a gaming controller.

Jennifer Weddle, 12, was a spotter and driver for last year’s competition, which takes place every fall.

“These are pincers, which are really good for picking up hangers,” Weddle said pointing at the robot. “We have an extending arm, which is really good at picking up puzzle pieces and placing them.”

Competition day is loud, Weddle said. Members lose their voice cheering for their favorite robots.

On top of the pressure, sometimes the CPU may have connecting issues with the controller.

“If something goes wrong, with this game, you basically just have to change your strategy a little bit,” Harms said.

Trial and error is important, she said.

“Some of us have been around for so long that it’s kind of been passed down,” Harms said.

“It’s a lot of fun. It sounds boring, but it’s not.”

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