LHS Robotics Team qualifies for National competition, seeks community support
While some students spend hours after school mastering a sport or an art, the nine students on the 2016 Robotics Team at Liberty HS spend their time designing, building and programming award-winning mechanical robots.
The LHS Robotics Team recently won the Parkland Starstruck HS Division Qualifier, a tournament at Springhouse MS against 36 other high schools Jan. 7 sponsored by VEX Robotics. The win earned them a spot at VEX’s national competition April 6-8 in Council Bluffs, Iowa and they are working to raise the $6,000 needed to get them to the competition.
Mentoring the team is AP physics and mathematics teacher and practicing engineer Mark Hoffman. Hoffman also teaches engineering for Project Lead the Way, a high school curriculum that he helped bring to BASD where students solve real-world problems centered on engineering and biomedical science.
“It’s rewarding seeing how well [the team] perform and exceed my expectations,” added Hoffman. “They are presented with challenges and they overcome them. It’s great to see them succeed at a higher level.”
Hoffman explained that public school teams are a rare find at these events since funding for extracurricular activities tends to be limited. Schools that participate in robotics are by and large private and charter schools with substantially more funding and more sophisticated robots, yet LHS beat out these schools in this their first tournament, Hoffman said.
Since its formation three years ago, the team has functioned on a shoe-string budget of membership dues and private donations, which cover costs for parts and travel to competitions. The team had also qualified for VEX’s national competition last year after winning States, but did not have the funds to go and compete. This year, they are seeking community support to secure the $6,000 needed for them to go to Nationals.
“All of our funding has only ever come from membership dues and private donations and what we’ve done with that says a lot,” stated senior and project lead Geoffery Baser.
At VEX competitions, robots from opposing schools are paired up to dual in a 12 x 12 foot arena divided by a fence 36 inches tall. Each robot occupies one side of the fence where they must catapult and push as many yellow foam stars as possible into the opposing team’s territory in two minutes. Teams earn points for the number of stars their robots successfully launch over the fence as well as the distance the star travels before it lands.
The robots must operate completely autonomously for the first 15 seconds of the game, which requires intricate programming and careful strategizing by the team.
“It still amazes me that I can write a program for the robot and it will simply do what I tell it to do,” said senior Felix Quintana, an aspiring physicist. Felix appreciates the critical thinking and analytical skills he’s gleaning from being on the team, he said.
After 15 seconds, Felix takes the controls and continues launching stars into enemy territory. Coaching him is sophomore Elizabeth Lee who, as the team’s strategy and rules manager, has read VEX’s thick manual of regulations cover to cover multiple times. This manual dictates everything from the size of the robot, to what it can and can’t do, to the game rules themselves. Her job is to make sure the team adheres to VEX’s regulations while designing and driving the robot.
“They think and act as a team,” Hoffman said. “One drives, one coaches, and they must listen to each other. Other teammates run checklists, others check batteries. Everyone has a function that is paramount to the operation and it runs pretty much like a well-run machine.”
As a practicing engineer, Hoffman emphasizes the same principles and methods in his teaching that engineers use to solve real problems, he said. The team used these systemic principles to resolve a mechanical issue with the robot’s wheels.
“The point of engineering is to solve problems in the most efficient way possible,” explained sophomore Raj Kundu, the team’s chief programmer and hopeful interventional radiologist who said he’s learning principles of good science from being on the team.
After designing and testing four different prototypes of wheels, the team came up with a new design for the robot that works to this day.
“I’ve learned the practicality of engineering instead of just the academics,” said Felix. “Just learning a theory is different than actually putting it into practice. Not every theory holds up when applied to certain situations.”
Gian Carlo Seixas is a senior and future chemical engineer who creates mechanical drawings documenting the long course of the team’s work on the robot.
“I’m taking away engineering principles and learning to flex my brain in ways that go beyond the classroom,” stated Gian Carlo.
Elizabeth described the camaraderie between schools at competitions. It’s quite common, she said, to see opposing teams encouraging and even helping each other out of glitches.
“The competitions are a great learning experience because all the teams support each other and give one another feedback,” Elizabeth explained. “It’s really helped us improve our design and we’ve helped other teams improve theirs.”
“Our team once helped Parkland [HS] with a programming issue,” Hoffman added. “Our two schools compare notes and collaborate often and that’s the kind of comradery and cross-fertilization that these kids need to be exposed to.”
To donate to the LHS Robotics Team’s trip to Nationals, visit GoFundMe.com and look under the LHS Robotics Team, or go to: http://www.gofundme.come/lhs-robotics-team-ntls-compfund.