Trying to be the BEST at robotics competition

9:17:21 AM CDT - Thursday, November 03, 2005

By Chase Willhite

Immediately after a disappointing third preliminary round at the Kansas BEST Robotics competition, members of the Goddard High School team were rushing back to "the pits" to prepare their robot for the next round.

Armed with power tools and detailed design plans, the team hurried to tighten a loose belt and work on other adjustments to try to raise its score in the final preliminary rounds.

Goddard BEST
Photo by David Dinell
Goddard student Jeff Griswold, left, drives the robot, carrying a simulated battery canister, while his Kansas BEST teammates, left to right, Brandon McElroy, Andrew Gross and Derek Hansen look on.
"They drop your lowest preliminary score," explained Andrew Gross, a sophomore at Goddard competing in his second BEST competition. "If we can get everything modified, we should still be in good shape."

While Gross and his teammates focused on what it would take to come away the big winners at the BEST competition, held Oct. 22 at Koch Arena, Goddard faculty member Travis Rink, one of the team's three coaches, continued to focus on what he said are the most important ideals of the BEST program.

"What you just saw right there, the students finding a problem and working through it, is what this is all about," said Rink, a chemistry teacher at Goddard. "Everyone wants to win, the students, the coaches and the mentors, but these students are getting hands-on experience and learning the process of engineering."

That process began six weeks before the competition, when each participating team received identical robot kits. From there, the students had to design, build and test the robot. Goddard faculty members and community mentors were available to give suggestions and help with designing.

According to Rink, immediately after the kits were distributed, the group came back and began brainstorming, establishing student leaders and coming up with strategies to score in whatever robot game was to be featured in the contest.

This year's game simulated a maintenance procedure on the Hubble Telescope, in which teams had to replace batteries and the motor.

After weeks of working, Goddard joined the other participating teams at the annual Mall Day, held at Towne West one week before the competition.

Mall Day gives each team a chance to demonstrate its robot to the public, test the robot design and give experience to the drivers.

 "We had a good day at Mall Day, but we found out we had a lot of work left to do," freshman Nathan Reichenberger said.

Goddard physics teacher and BEST coach Brad Cline described the final week as a "mad dash."

 "Everyone saw what needed to be done and came in and worked on it all week," Cline said. "We had an in-service day where the kids didn't have school, and a bunch of them worked all day on the robot."

If the weeks leading up to the main event are all about work, then the robotics competition itself is a chance to let loose.

Koch Arena was full of energy as some schools brought pep bands, cheerleading squads and flag teams.

 "We're really fortunate to get to have the Kansas competition in an atmosphere like this," Rink said. "It really makes the students feel like they've accomplished something just to be competing."

In past years, Goddard, which has a history of winning local and national awards, has competed in both the game portion of the competition and for the overall BEST award, which includes a notebook documenting everything the team does.

This year Rink, short on numbers and having a young team, decided to focus exclusively on the robotics game.

The team started the day on a roll, posting solid scores in the first two rounds, but ran into problems in the third prelim round. Between a belt coming loose on the gear shaft and differences between the actual game track and the track Goddard built for testing, the students had to think on their feet and find a way to make the robot work.
"In something like this, two inches can make a big, big difference," senior Alan Schafers said. "But, overall it's a minor setback and one we can work through."

With the new modifications in place, the scores went up almost as quickly as the team's enthusiasm level, as Goddard made it all the way to the final game.

The final match featured four teams, with the top two advancing to the regional competition in Arkansas.

One component of this year's game was the opportunity to score points by working with another team to place an engine in a slot for 24 bonus points. Heading into the final round, Goddard and Circle High School made the plans to try to hand off the engine for the bonus points.

 "When you get to that level, there has to be a certain level of strategy involved," Rink said. "If it would have worked, then Goddard and Circle would have been the top two teams in the finals."

The teams couldn't complete the maneuver, and Goddard finished in third place, one spot from advancing.

"It is a disappointment to some of the students to come that close and not get to move on," Rink said. "But we've got students that also understand that's the way things go sometimes, and they can be proud of the product they produced."

While the contest is over for another year, the Goddard students aren't slowing down anytime soon. The school is preparing for the WSU-sponsored Science Olympiad, which also has a section for robotics.

Additionally, as mentor Doug Griswold pointed out, the skills the students learn while competing in the BEST program will benefit them long after they finish competing.

"I want them to win as badly as anyone," said Griswold, an engineer at Cessna who had two sons  on the Goddard team. "But I'm also interested in what they're learning, because these are the types of students I'm going to want to hire in a few years."

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