High school robotics teams meet deadline despite lost time from storms

vgrooms@thesunnews.comFebruary 18, 2014 

  • If you go

    What | Palmetto Regional FIRST Robotics Competition

    Where | Myrtle Beach Convention Center

    When | Feb. 27 through March 1; doors open at 8 a.m.

    Cost | Free

    For more information | www.myrtlebeachfirstrobotics.com

The pink robot moved forward and back, then side to side, before its flexible arms tossed a huge red ball toward an imaginary goal Tuesday evening, as the Carolina Forest robotics team put the machine through its paces.

Tuesday was stop build day for teams entered in the Palmetto Regional FIRST Robotics Competition that will be held next week in Myrtle Beach. Robots from 67 teams had to be packed by midnight to be sent to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

“We lost a few days [of building] during the storm, but we completed all the major functional details,” said Joe Boggs, a MetGlas engineer and mentor for the Carolina Forest team. “Last year at this time, it wasn’t that pretty.”

High school robotics teams around the world have been working nonstop for the last six weeks, creating robots that will compete in regional contests and could go on to the national FIRST Robotics competition. Missed school days due to harsh winter weather has made time constraints even tighter for teams in Horry County, as well as others around the country.

Horry County Schools has 12 teams entered this year, representing its 10 high schools and two academies. Most schools missed six days after two ice storms hit the area, while those in the Aynor and Green Sea Floyds attendance areas missed an extra day because of power outages, which brought most robot-building to a halt.

“I even talked to our principal about getting us into the building,” said Nathan Ernest, Carolina Forest biology teacher and team coach, “but she made it very clear we were not allowed here at all.”

The team was able to make a little progress despite the weather, with one student working on programming during the first weather setback. Joe Cloutier, a mentor from Zephyr International, said they anticipated school being closed for the second storm, and he took the robot to his home, where he and a few of the team members worked from his garage.

FIRST Robotics is the largest organized competitive robotics program in the world. Teams have six weeks to design and build a robot that can perform the tasks of a specific game, and the competition is designed to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) skills and teach students how to solve problems and work together.

This is the second year the Palmetto Regional will be held in Myrtle Beach, and organizers received a special waiver this year to host a record 67 teams at the event, said Frank Lanford, regional director for FIRST Palmetto Regional Robotics.

Horry County Schools is the only district in the state to have all of its high schools in the competition, he said. Last year, the team from Conway’s Academy for Technology and Academics won and moved on to the national tournament in St. Louis.

This is the third year of competition for Carolina Forest, which has experience on its side, as well as its three mentors – including Danny Graham of Custom Machine and Design – and two team coaches, Ernest and calculus teacher Jan Hucks. Boggs said they also have gotten support from community members and area businesses that have donated needed parts and provided food for the team.

Three teams from Horry County – Aynor, HCS Early College and North Myrtle Beach high schools - are in their rookie year with the competition. Learning the ropes can be difficult, but the weather delays have made the process even more challenging.

“[The winter storms] kind of put a hurting on us, as we’ve had to wait for packages and parts we absolutely needed,” said biology teacher Susan Horner, team coach for North Myrtle Beach High. “There was a package that was supposed to be here last Wednesday, it got stuck in Knoxville, Tenn., and finally, I begged them to take it off the truck so I could pick it up [Monday] during my planning period.”

Five other teachers are helping the team, as well as their mentor, Louis Keiner, a physics professor from Coastal Carolina University, Horner said, but there is a lot of trial and error for a rookie team. She said they didn’t always know exactly what parts they needed, and she has been at Lowe’s every day to get different supplies.

FIRST Robotics Director Frank Merrick acknowledged that many teams are experiencing challenges because of severe weather in their areas, but no extensions were given for building time, he said in the competition’s blog. He said for some teams, there may be flexibility in weight regulations and late bagging times without penalty, but for the most part, teams had to forge ahead despite adverse circumstances.

That was the attitude at North Myrtle Beach, where Horner said she had been a bit stressed, but the kids on the team haven’t seemed stressed at all.

“We’ll make it,” she said. “It may not be everything we expected, but we’ll have our robot there.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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