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Envirobots advance to regional robotics championships

The members of the robotics team from Oregon City’s Springwater Environmental Sciences School are on their way to the West Super-Regional Championship Tournament, held March 20 to 22 at McClellan Airfield in Sacramento, Calif.

It almost didn’t happen.

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Tucker Bowlin holds the controls, while Brighten Carter and Jordyn Duntley look on, as Robert the robot picks up some blocks during a trial run.The nine-member team, all seventh-graders, finished in fifth place in their division at the state tournament, held in early March at Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland. This was a disappointment for them because only the top four teams advanced to the super regionals.

Then came the news that one of the four teams would be unable to attend the tournament due to financial reasons, so the Springwater team, the Envirobots, was tapped to go to California.

“We are so excited, so lucky,” said team member Brighten Carter, 12, while fellow team member Jordyn Duntley, 12, added, “It is a huge privilege.”

The students in Kassandra Paige’s seventh-/eighth-grade science class began working on building a robot for the first time last September. Because this is the first time the school has fielded a robotics team, it received a $10,000 federal grant to build an indoor field and to buy the parts to construct the robot itself, Paige said.

Andy Bowlin, a parent who also is the volunteer technical coordinator at the school, came up with the idea of implementing a robotics program into the STEM curriculum, Paige said, adding that STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

“It seemed intimidating to the students at first,” but once the program was underway, the students were happy and excited to take part, she said.

Since the Springwater Environmental Sciences School focuses on project-based learning and problem-solving skills in a multidisciplinary arena, Bowlin thought a robotics program would be a perfect fit for the school’s seventh-grade curriculum.

“By adding engineering into the curriculum, you apply mechanical design and technology, you work on team-building skills, you talk about ideas, and you experience failure and learn from that,” Bowlin said.

And because there is an existing international youth robotics program called FIRST, an acronym, which means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, there already is a structured element that would be easy to incorporate into the current curriculum at the school, he said.

FIRST issues challenge

In the FIRST program, students are given a specific set of rules to follow that stress “gracious professionalism,” Bowlin said.

“Every year in September, FIRST issues a new challenge to all teams all over the world. Students are told what parts they can use to build their robots and complete the challenge, but it is the students who design, build and program the robots, within the parameters of the challenge,” he said.

There are several age-group divisions within FIRST, including junior teams, ages 6 to 9. The Envirobots are in the First Tech Challenge division, for grades seven through 12.

The team chose the name Envirobots because they wanted to emphasize that they represent an environmental school, team members said, and they also decided to name their robot Robert.

Rules for the competition are complex, and include inspections of each team’s robot by the judges, a student presentation to a panel of judges about the process of building and programming the robot, and the actual operating of the robot on a specially constructed indoor field.

The competition is a two-day process, said Tucker Bowlin, 12, a member of the team and Andy Bowlin’s son.

“The first day you get the robot inspected and tested to see if it is still working, and then we talk about the robot and how we built it,” he said, noting that the theme for this year’s competition is “block party.”

As the students begin to build their robots, they must “think about manipulating the robot to do certain tasks, and they must develop their critical-thinking skills. They must figure out all the steps needed to pick up a block, and this makes the students think harder,” Andy Bowlin said.

When it is time to roll out the robots onto the field for that part of the competition, the drivers take over, including Carter and Tucker Bowlin. The field has two ramps and other small structures, but most importantly, there are containers filled with brightly colored blocks that the robots must pick up and deliver.

There are three main periods in the competition: Autonomous, Teleop and Endgame.

In Autonomous, the robot has 30 seconds to pick up a block and carry it to a specific location. The driver has programmed the instructions into the computer, and at the touch of a button, the robot begins to move on its own, Carter said.

“But in Teleop, we control the robot with one of the controllers, and we try to get blocks into baskets” which are balanced on a see-saw like structure, she said.

Teleop is two minutes long, but the last 30 seconds of that period is called Endgame, during which the driver can direct the robot over to a corner and raise a flag, or can direct the robot to hang from a rod. None of the robot’s wheels are allowed to touch the ground in the latter maneuver. Or, to rack up more points, the driver can direct the robot to do both tasks.

Teamwork counts

Points are compiled to determine winners, but there are other ways to advance to the next competition, Andy Bowlin said.

“The bigger part is how you present yourself as a team, how much you inspire the younger generation, how you form team strategies, how you designed the robot and how you are able to think outside the box,” he said.

In fact, the Envirobots qualified for the state competition by winning a second-place Inspire Award at the Evergreen Air Museum regional robotics competition.

“The Inspire Award truly embodies the ‘challenge’ of the FTC program. The team receiving this award serves as an inspiration to what this program, and the young minds involved, can accomplish. The team has performed well in all judging categories and serves as a model FIRST Tech Challenge Team,” Paige said.

Andy Bowlin also noted that although FIRST is the international governing organization for the competitions, Oregon has a state organizing body called ORTOP, an acronym for Oregon Robotics Tournament & Outreach Program. He recommended that anyone interested in starting a robotics program visit ortop.org.

Looking back on what the team has accomplished, Carter said her favorite part of the process is “speaking to the judges and going to the competitions.”

She added that she has learned valuable engineering skills through trial and error, but in the end it has been “really fun and cool to know that you know how to build a robot.”

“At first I didn’t want to take on the challenge, but now I am really happy and know that everything I learned I will be able to use in high school and the rest of my life. I learned about technology and teamwork and how to work out problems,” Duntley said.

Tucker Bowlin learned about robotics from his father, of course, but said he had always been interested in engineering, robotics and mechanical things.

“I like building things, so I liked the idea of building a robot from scratch and seeing others compete,” he said.

Paige added that next year her new seventh-graders will get to be part of the robotics program, and this year’s team, which will then be in eighth grade, will have the opportunity to continue through an after-school program.

She also said that she and the team will be looking for local business sponsors to help them continue with robotics since the federal grant was just for one year.

Nine members of the Envirobots will attend the competition in Sacramento. They include: Tucker Bowlin, Brighten Carter, Liam Cummings, Tony Cyphers, Jordyn Duntley, Jesus Ferreyra, Callie Glasgow, Henry Phipps and Joshua Rippe. Coaches are Andy Bowlin, Carol Krueger and Kassandra Paige.

Four other students are part of the team, but are unable to go to the California competition. They are: Maggie Anderson, Duncan Harris, Mishayla Walker and Emma Woodward.

The Springwater Environmental Sciences School is located at 16491 S. Springwater Road, in Oregon City. It is a public charter school for students in kindergarten through eighth grades, and is part of the Oregon City School District. Call 503-631-7700 or visit springwaterschool.com.



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