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Young engineers create winning robot, advance to state competition

Members of πr8s, Vashon High School’s robotics club, pose with parts of the robot they created. Starting at the bottom and moving clockwise: Kelvin Rogers, Lucien Brilliant, Dayton Connelly, Kyle Gagner, Gavin Johns, Theresa Aguilera, Sean Yeoell and Lance Warneke. - Courtesy Photo
Members of πr8s, Vashon High School’s robotics club, pose with parts of the robot they created. Starting at the bottom and moving clockwise: Kelvin Rogers, Lucien Brilliant, Dayton Connelly, Kyle Gagner, Gavin Johns, Theresa Aguilera, Sean Yeoell and Lance Warneke.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

The crowd went wild in the gym of Tahoma Senior High School in Covington, cheering as students from Vashon High School competed against other high school teams from around the region. This was no sporting event though, but a competition in which robots were the players.

The πr8s (pronounced Pirates) robotics club at VHS has worked hours each weekend for several months, creating from scratch a robot that they used to compete in the regional FIRST Tech Challenge competition on Sunday, Dec. 5. The eight-person team’s hard work paid off when the team advanced to the state championships.

Bruce Johns, the club’s adviser, said the success was especially sweet considering the club has existed for only two years and many of its members are new to robotics.

“To qualify for state with such a young team — I think they’re doing really well,” he said.

Johns said the πr8s were judged not only on how well their robot completed a challenge that was announced to the teams in September, but also on factors such as an engineering notebook they kept to detail the robot’s creation and how they interacted with other teams at the event.

The πr8s were finalists in four categories at the event and qualified for state with their nomination for the Inspire Award, the most prestigious award and the one that recognizes all-around success.

“To be nominated four times is pretty amazing,” Johns said.

Kyle Gagner, a junior at VHS and a member of the πr8s, said he enjoyed working with his teammates to create the robot this year and was pleasantly surprised to advance to the next level of competition.

“We’re really happy to have this opportunity, which we weren’t counting on, and we’ll make the most of it,” he said.

Three years ago, as an eighth-grader, Gagner participated in the robotics club at McMurray Midde School, where students are introduced to robotics by working with special LEGO kits. The McMurray club, headed by Johns, is also under the umbrella of FIRST Washington, a non-profit organization created in 1989 to help students learn about science and get them excited about technology and engineering.

“The program isn’t just about robotics,” said Johns, who has worked with small machines in the electromechanical field for more than 30 years. “The whole point is to get kids excited about technology and science and engineering.”

Gagner said the team’s 18-inch tall robot will face the same challenge it did a few weeks ago when they travel to the state competition in Bellevue this month: a timed game in which the robot must remove small batons from dispensers and transport them to the other side of a 12-by-12 foot ring, passing a number of obstacles along the way. The robot completes the task once by itself, relying on the students’ programming, and one time controlled by the students.

“You have to make a very versatile robot,” Gagner said.

The team plans to make slight modifications to its robot before state, Gagner said, adding an attachment that would shoot the batons across the playing field.

“The point is so you don’t waste time going to to other side of the field,” he said.

Though both creating the robot and competing with it has presented the students with challenges — such as when a piece they spent hours making wouldn’t fit on the machine or the robot stalled in the middle of a game — Gagner said the process has been fun and they are all excited to see how they fare at state.

“I’m interested in robots and I think it’s a really cool opportunity, and I get to work with some people that I otherwise wouldn’t get to work with. … I look forward to the Saturdays when we get to do this,” he said.

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