If Bucky Sellers had been told a year and a half ago there would be nine Horry County Schools teams in this year’s Palmetto Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, he probably wouldn’t have believed it.
“I did not know we would be in this good of shape,” said Sellers, who teaches pre-engineering at the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology. “I’m ecstatic.”
Sellers was instrumental in getting the high school teams on their feet, as well as bringing the regional to their own backyard. Now in its 10th year, the competition will be held here for the first time at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center from Thursday through Saturday. The event, free and open to the public, will bring 65 teams – the most the event has seen – from 12 states, the District of Columbia and Brazil to the Grand Strand and put area students to the test in a new kind of spectator sport.
“We’re excited that this event is here and would love for it to be a permanent addition to our schedule,” said Mark Kruea, spokesman for the city of Myrtle Beach. “There will be 1,200 students coming, plus their parents and teachers – that’s a good boost for the middle of winter – and some of them have not been here before. It’s a chance for us to showcase Myrtle Beach to a new audience.”
FIRST Robotics is the largest organized competitive robotics program in the world and regional winners move on to a final tournament. Teams are given a game and a kit and students have six weeks to design and build a robot that can perform the tasks of the game. The process encourages interest in science, technology, math and engineering skills, while also teaching students how to solve problems and work together.
Before the last school year, AAST and the Academy for Technology and Academics were the only schools in the district with robotics teams and Sellers and Horry County school board member Karen McIlrath began a push to get robotics education in every school. Carolina Forest, Conway, St. James and Socastee high schools came on board with teams last year, and Green Sea Floyds, Loris and Myrtle Beach will get their first taste of competition this week.
This year’s game, “Ultimate Ascent,” requires each robot to throw Frisbees into goals for points to climb pyramids on a 27-by-54-foot playing field. Teams received their kits Jan. 5 and were finished building by Feb. 19. The robots, which are all unique, will be inspected Thursday, and teams will be able to make adjustments during the event, which also will be streamed on NASA’s website.
Members of the RoboSharks, St. James High School’s robotics team, worked on their robot at AAST and during a recent work session said having a year of experience will make a difference in this year’s competition.
“Last year, we were disorganized – we were rookies,” said junior Krystal Rolon, who said robotics is a challenge that pushes them out of their comfort zone. “This year, we know the procedure, and we have a better chance at competing.”
Rolon is one of the team’s original members, and she was able to visualize their robot’s design. The team’s coach, Franklin Powell, teaches social studies and is in his first year at St. James, but he’s no stranger to robotics, having been on a team himself.
“They learn gracious professionalism,” said Powell, who said when he was in school, his team’s robot fell apart at the competition but was rebuilt with parts and tools donated by other teams. “There’s a lot of trial and error, but it’s not just building – there’s programming and electronics, we’re using some pneumatics The robot has to fit in a certain dimension, but then there are unlimited possibilities.”
Powell said the team members bring a lot of energy to the project, and teacher Jeanna Johnson is their unsung hero, handling paperwork and writing grants for the team. He said while they were able to use money left over from last year, they will have to focus on fundraising to cover costs in the future for things like registration, potential travel and extra materials, which teams are allowed to purchase as long as they are commonly available parts and the total stays under $4,000.
“I’m just the helper; you’re the master,” said sophomore Tom McCoy to D.J. Powell, a sophomore, who was drilling holes freehand into the robot’s frame. D.J. Powell said he learned to build by watching his father, and McCoy was following the process so he would be able to step in and help.
“If you don’t know how to do something, you’re going to learn how to do it and how to do it correctly,” said Rolon, who plans to study quantum physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is application. You can only learn so much from a textbook.”
Franklin Powell said the RoboSharks were benefiting from the advice of Sellers and mentor Thomas Easley, an engineer with Santee Cooper, who help any of the teams when asked. Sellers said the Loris team worked at AAST about 90 percent of the time, and Myrtle Beach and Green Sea Floyds had checked in with him at different points along the way.
“My goal was to get a robotics team in every school,” Sellers said. “I believe the technology impact in our world is going to be nothing but exponential in the future, and we have to get the kids involved at an early age to be globally competitive.”
His enthusiasm for robotics has not only spread quickly at the high school level, but it’s catching on with the younger set as well. At last year’s Horry County Schools Technology Fair, 17 teams from middle and elementary schools competed in the LEGO Robotics Challenge. Sellers said this year’s teams will number between 25 and 30.
“The kids take to it. It has exploded, and we’re just tickled to death,” he said. “This particular event is going to be the largest state regional event in the world. A lot of people are coming because it’s being held in Myrtle Beach, and the turnout has just been phenomenal. We have raised the bar.”