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New Robotics Club offers BMS students a chance to exercise their interest in technology



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Darren Dutton and Kai Lachappelle of Belmont Robotics Team 603 paired up with a team from Pinkerton Academy to score points during the Frost Bite Qualifier last month, one of many robotics tournaments that lead up to the state championships later this winter. (Photo by Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
January 17, 2019
BELMONT – While Belmont High School has had a robotics team for the past few years, this year, a group of enthusiastic middle school students have become involved in the field of robotics as well.

Robotics is a Unified Arts class option at Belmont Middle School, but now, under the guidance of faculty member Joe Wernig, they have formed a Robotics Club as well. Each Tuesday since September, interested students have been meeting to build robots for the annual VEX EDR Challenges held around the state, thanks to a grant that provided funds for the equipment. The students then were challenged to design the structure, add electronic components, and program them to perform a number of assigned tasks through a controller.

Last month, BHS hosted two days of competition, called the Frost Bite Qualifier, where teams vied for points to hopefully move on to the state finals.

On Saturday, 16 high schools took part in the "Turning Point" competition. Schools were randomly paired up throughout the day to go head-to-head in tasks that required their robots to grab, lift, climb and toss objects in a playing field.

Adrien Deshaies is the high school faculty advisor and director of the Shaker VEX robotics team. He said students take part in anywhere from 5-8 matches throughout the course of a tournament but never know who they will be working with or competing against.

"There are three fields for the competitions with four robots on a field at a time," he explained. "Two schools have one minute to work together to score as many points as they can against two other schools."

The benefit of pairing up with other schools, Deshaies said, is that while one team's robot may be good at one task on the field, the other might be better prepared for another. That can help optimize points or force them to work around each other as they try to score as much as possible.

"The games change every year. This year it's hard to build a robot that can both grab the flags and pick up the caps so the students try to specialize in one of the functions then hope they're paired with teams that might do another function well," said Deshaies.

Throughout the Frostbite Qualifier, teams could also head to a special Skills playing field where they could earn additional points. And, when not competing or scoring on the Skills field, teams were making adjustments, changing motors or batteries, and doing whatever else they could to improve their chances in the next round.

Seniors Jake Deware and Konnor Blake experienced some early mechanical issues with their robot "Roseanne" but were confident by midday at the Frost Bite that they had everything operating as it should.

Deware originally signed up for a robotics class this past fall to earn the extra credit he needed for graduation.

"When we built the base of a robot though I realized it was really fun so I signed up for the team," he said.

One of the keys for success is the ability to be a good problem-solver, which Blake said can make things stressful at times.

"You build [your robot], then you have to ask yourself what's going to go wrong and be ready to fix it," Deware added.

While working on their own robots, the two said they also keep an eye on the competition and perhaps try to duplicate an adjustment that seems to be working well for another team.

On Sunday, middle school students took part in the "Next Level" event for the Frost Bite Qualifier, their first official competition with Coach Wernig. Their challenges included placing spools on different squares and structures, and the ability to make their robot hang from a bar. The students were very excited to be part of the competition and at every chance they had they continued to make improvements to their robots. Zack said he has always loved building things with Legos but he is also good at electronics, so robotics has been a fun way to mesh his two interests.

"It's a dream of mine to get to the states with these guys now," he said.

The students, both boys and girls, draw on each other strengths as they built and repair their robots. While one person might construct the body, other teammates will work on programming, coding and problem solving.

"We all pretty much do whatever it is we do best then go from there," they said.

Deshaies said the added beauty of the program is that not all students enjoy sports, but through robotics they get all the benefits of teamwork and competition they might not otherwise experience.

"This really is a big commitment for these kids," said Deshaies.

So far, so good for them all as they continue to rack up competition points and make their way up through the standings to hopefully find themselves in the state championship round later this winter.

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Martin Lord Osman
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