By Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — Five teens, two adults and a robot are loaded into a van heading east today to compete in the Night at the Museum robotics competition at the National Air and Space Museum’s companion facility in Chantilly, Virginia.
The students will get to do a little sightseeing, like visiting the White House, before the competition takes place from 3-11 p.m. Friday and again on Saturday.
Although VEX Robotics hosts multiple competitions each year, this particular venue adds a new level of excitement and fun. “It will truly be a night at the museum, which will be quite an experience for the kids,” said club co-adviser Julie Stoeffler. “One of the competition fields will be under the thrusters of the Space Shuttle Discovery. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
The Greenfield-Central team, known as 1115B, was the only one of the school’s seven robotics teams to qualify for this week’s competition, which will play host to 60 teams from around the country.
The team includes seniors Adam Hughes and Caleb Stoeffler, junior John Hill, sophomore Owen Bishop and freshman Claire Bishop. Their fellow robotics club members will be cheering them on all the way, Stoeffler said.
The school’s club has grown significantly this year: from three to seven teams with 27 students total. They’re a dedicated group, often coming into school an hour early or staying several hours late to perfect their robots.
“Sometimes when it’s closer to competition they’ll be in here sometimes ‘til 10 p.m.,” said Julie Stoeffler, whose son, Caleb, is captain of the museum-bound team “As long as they want to stay, I’m OK with it.”
Students also tinker with robots in their down-time during study halls, Stoeffler said. “You can go in there at any given time during the school day and there’s kids working robots.”
Adam, 17, has worked in the robotics room every day since joining the club his freshman year.
“I’ve always liked the engineering field. I like working with my hands,” he said last week. “I also enjoy the people. It’s a tight-knit group,” said Adam, who plans to study computer science at Purdue University this fall.
The robotics club teaches kids about more than just engineering. It also teaches them vital skills like teamwork and time management, Adam said.
Caleb Stoeffler was hooked on robotics since the day the high school club did a demonstration for his seventh-grade Cub Scout pack. He immediately joined the club, taking a bus from the junior high to the high school each afternoon.
His favorite parts are building and driving, the latter of which includes using a hand-held remote to navigate the robot across the playing field, picking up and stacking blocks to score as many points as possible.
“The design process involves a lot of strategizing because we look at what will give us the most points, said Caleb, 17, who has served as captain of Team 1115B since his freshman year. He plans to study mechanical engineering in college this fall.
Greenfield-Central has a long history of successful robotics teams.
In current world rankings, the school’s B team is ranked 50th, the A team is 135th and the D team is 307th among 9,000 teams worldwide.
Statewide, the school’s B team ranked 3rd, the A team ranked 10th and the D team ranked 16th last year.
“Indiana is one of the most competitive robotics states,” said Julie Stoeffler. “The state has a lot of teams in world rankings, which means all of our state tournaments are really competitive.”
High school robotics programs basically work the same way each year.
A company called VEX Robotics designs a game each year that will be the crux of competitions for robotics clubs from elementary school through college throughout the year.
“You basically build a robot from VEX-approved parts, like steel and aluminum, and build it from the ground up,” said Julie Stoeffler. “It’s like a glorified Erector set. The kids write the code to make the robot do whatever it’s called to do.”
Each year’s game is revealed at the prior year’s world competition. After the big reveal, students around the globe set to work designing robots they think will do the best job of scoring points and winning competitions within the standard 12-by-12-foot playing field. Clubs typically have their own elevated playing fields with Plexiglas walls to practice in before competitions.
This year’s game involves taking three different colored cubes, just under 6 square inches each, and stacking them onto scoring zones in each corner. The game also involves towers with cups sitting on top. “If the robot puts a cup in the tower, then that multiplies what they’ve stacked,” said Julie Stoeffler.
“You have to pay attention to what your opponent is doing, how much they’re stacking and putting in towers. You can also take blocks out. It’s a highly competitive game with some defense being played,” she said.
Each scoring zone has room for three stacks, but there’s no limit to how high the stacks can go. Just like a game of Jenga, however, if they’re stacked too tall, they risk toppling over.
It’s an intricate process carefully facilitated by the teams, each of which has a driver, a mechanic, a programmer and a note-taker who helps document the entire design and building process. The notebook of notes taken throughout the year is submitted to judges as part of each competition. “Sometimes you have one person doing several different tasks,” said Julie Stoeffler, who enjoys watching the teens naturally fall into a rhythm and find the best ways to work together as a team.
If a team doesn’t like how a robot performs at a competition, it will head back to the robotics room and tweak it or totally rebuild.
Team 1115B has been working on newly built robot design that will be unveiled at the Night at the Museum event.
Robots are required to start out no bigger than an 18-square-inch cube, but they can expand out once the competition begins. The Greenfield team whittled the starting size of their robot down to 16-square-inches so it can fit better into narrow corners, making it easier to score points.