There are no MIT graduates at work, no engineering professors, just a group of brainy kids doing groundbreaking stuff after school.
They’re members of the Universal Robotics Team, a group of Sonoraville High School and Middle School students that utilizes the VEX Robotics Design System to build competition caliber robots.
“Three years ago I decided I wanted to start a program,” said team founder Ray Payne, a teacher at Sonoraville Middle. “We looked at LEGO and we looked at this and my supervisor at the time (was able) to fund me, but wanted us to go with VEX, so we went with VEX.”
The VEX program allows students the chance to work hands on with robots and accompanying parts. Teachers instruct students on how things work but the kids are the designers and builders.
“We started just like you see with the (new) kids out there, knowing nothing,” Payne said. “But I have some great, intelligent kids who got into it and got it started.”
The program has been an immediate success. Last year, a team qualified for the world championships and this year another has qualified for the national tournament.
“We learned a lot in competitions and came back and started modifying the robots and we got better and better,” Payne said.
On Tuesday, Sly Lumpkin and Will Tierce — two with championship hopes — were tinkering and ratcheting, wiring and cajoling a manifestation of metal, alkaline and rubber to life.
If you’re thinking they’re just kids playing with toys, think again.
They are literally engineering the robots from the ground up.
“(I’m getting) knowledge and hands on experience of how things work, how things are different on paper than they are in real life because of the human factor and how one little thing can mess up the whole robot,” said team member Stephen Rademacher.
The VEX robots come in individual kits but all the assemblage is up to the students.
It all begins with pieces of metal, which have to be cut, shaped and fastened together by hand.
They’re outfitted with motors, batteries, tracks and arms and they are designed to be more functional than aesthetic.
“The way they are designed is to actually make you think,” Rademacher said.
Students spend hours constructing the machines, giving them abilities that seem almost human.
In competition, for example, the robots pick up beanbags, move them to trough-like receptacles and drop them off.
The operators can also steal the other team’s beanbags to take points away. There is also a taller “goal” which teams can use to score more points.
The competition design places a heavy emphasis on strategy.
Do you want a faster robot to outrun the opponent or one that is easier to control? Do you want to try and score points or take them away?
Some of the robots are driven by remote controls and operate much like radio-controlled cars, but others — especially in competitions — have to be programmed to do certain tasks autonomously.
Creating a robot with a mind of its own, so to speak, is particularly groundbreaking for students of this age, Payne said.
He gives all the credit to the students.
“I was actually one of the first people to join the program,” Tierce, a 9th grader, said. “I came and talked to Mr. Payne about joining and he let me in and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Like many of his teammates, Tierce hopes to become an engineer.
“I just enjoy doing it; it’s something I’m good at,” he said. “Its cool to be able to do this kind of stuff.”
Getting on the robotics team is somewhat competitive and it is made up of a diverse ensemble of students.
Many of the students are just getting started and their robots look quite a bit like cars, while others like Tierce, Lumpkin, Rademacher and Mohit Manson are veterans.
Their robots are quite advanced — to go along with their aspirations.
For more information about VEX, visit www.vexrobotics.com.