Columbia robotics team blasts into competition season

AP

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In a small classroom in the MU Agricultural Engineering building, 38 Columbia high school students, 11 college students and about 10 parents and mentors gathered in anticipatory silence to watch a live broadcast from a major national robotics competition.

The Army Ants, a robotics team made up of Columbia high school students and two home-schooled students, awaited the announcement of this year’s “game” for the FIRST Robotics competition, to take place at the end of February.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — holds a robotics competition that challenges teams of high school students to design, build and program industrial-size robots. The teams’ robots then compete against each other in a “game,” according to the organization’s website.

As the time for the announcement moved closer and closer to zero, Rock Bridge senior and Army Ants team member Louise Schul eagerly sat by her computer, waiting for this year’s competition manual with its 100 pages or more of regulations for the construction of the team’s robot. The manual was set to be released in the same live broadcast as this year’s game.

The game, announced at 9:30 a.m., is called “Destination: Deep Space,” and Schul and her team members will have to build a robot that places hatch panels on structures that resemble rockets and cargo ships. The robot also must load cargo onto a ship and returns to its “habitat,” a designated location where the teams must direct the robots after they have finished loading materials.

Schul said her team will spend the weeks leading up to the competition working almost every day to design, build and program their robot.

“It’s very time-consuming,” she said. “After school, we normally get here around 4:30 p.m. and stay until 7 or 8 p.m., and on the weekends we come in for about eight hours on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays.”

The 38 members of the Army Ants team make up three subteams: computer-assisted design, mechanical and programming. Schul is part of the programming team, while another Rock Bridge senior, Matthew Grieshaber, is on the mechanical team. The mechanical team is in charge of the physical construction of the robot.

Grieshaber said he is excited to get to work this year because the team is able to build two prototypes, which they could not do in the past. The team will work on one robot first until it’s completed then start to work on the second, a practice robot that can be tweaked to solve any mistakes that come up, he said.

The second robot will give the team the opportunity to try out different designs and mechanisms to see which one works best. They can then perfect the design on the main robot, Grieshaber said.

The Army Ants team is headed by three chief mentors: MU bioengineering professor Dr. Kevin Gillis, MU biological sciences professor Anand Chandrasekhar and engineer Andy Winslow. The mentors oversee the team’s progress and offer guidance throughout the process.

Gillis said a big goal for the team is to prepare the students for advance study in college, no matter their interests.

“It’s not just all technical, a big part of (being on) the team is managing,” he said. “Managing the budget, coming up with the artwork and such, branding and marketing, as well as outreach working with younger kids, so there’s all sorts they can do to follow their interests.”

The team also has 11 college student mentors who are available for extra help. They will collectively build their own robot within the first three days of the competition season to serve as a example to the younger students.

Morgan Kruse, a MU sophomore who has been involved with the robotics team since 2013, said her own purpose as a mentor is to make the students come out of their shells.

“That’s my main goal, that they can feel comfortable sharing their ideas, and they understand that it’s OK to talk,” she said. “It’s OK to be wrong. No one’s wrong when they’re brainstorming.”

Last year, the team took home the engineering inspiration award at the competition, which recognizes the team that made the most effort to influence the community to participate in STEM programs. On top of having the team’s robot place in the top tier overall, Schul hopes to once again bring home the inspiration award.

“Winning that award shows how much you impact the community, and considering all of the hours I’ve put in to outreach, it would be really nice to see that,” she said.

The first week of competition begins Feb. 27.

Supervising editor is Kaleigh Feldkamp.

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