CEDAR FALLS — Valley Lutheran School’s FIRST Tech Competition team has been focused on improving its robot since qualifying for the World Championship in Detroit.
Earlier this month, CrossFire team members were trying to perfect a metal arm they will attach to the robot. That would allow it to drop a plastic relic figure on a mat as far as possible outside of the nearly 12-foot square playing field.
“That’s our big hope,” said junior Ryley Hindman. It could help the 12-member group, also known as Team 9968, to earn points and improve their score during the championship April 25-28.
Teams design and build robots on a base no larger than 18 inches square to complete tasks that are part of the 2 1/2-minute game, which is called Relic Recovery this year. Along with the “relic,” robots stack foam blocks and place plastic balls on the playing field. FIRST — or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is an international organization that sponsors robotics competitions for various age groups.
An ability to score points with its robot wasn’t what won the 3-year-old team a trip to the championship, though. Rather, it earned a series of awards that don’t depend on robotic performance.
“You can still move on based on what you’ve done to advance science and technology,” said Hindman.
At the league and state levels it won the first- and third-place Inspire awards, respectively. The students went on to win the first place Connect award at the super qualifier meet and the third place Motivate award at the super regional meet. The awards are given to teams which are role models to others, connect to the local engineering community and demonstrate enthusiasm for the program.
The team’s outreach is a big part of what has impressed judges, according to the students.
Junior Dani Panning created a curriculum which the students have taught in three preschools. “The program we do with the preschoolers is called ‘Fairy Tale STEM,’” she said. She transforms the stories into tales about science, technology, engineering and mathematics while telling them in a very interactive way. For example, she introduces the three little pigs as engineers and gets the children involved in building toy houses.
Students have also hosted STEM camps at their school for elementary and middle school children. Most recently, they started partnering with a Davenport FIRST Lego League team to get the colorful plastic bricks into the hands of children in the African countries of Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia.
“Every kid can use Legos,” said senior Katelynn Panning. “It teaches creative thinking and engineering at the same time.”
Making it to the championship, which includes teams from across the country and around the world, has “always been our goal,” said Owen Dawson, a junior.
“I’ve been here all three years and I’ve wanted to go, but it just didn’t happen,” said Kyle Knight, a senior.
Other team members are senior Blake Drinovsky, junior Bailey Coan, sophomore Lauren Dawson, and eighth graders Tobias Hindman, Isaac Natvig, Kassidy Dunbar, and David Williams. There are also four mentors who are parents of the students.
Knight noted that they built each component of their robot except the wheels. The pieces are designed using computerized drafting software and constructed out of wood, metal or plastic. A 3-dimensional printer and lathe help in the effort.
“It’s all custom,” said Knight. “I think it sets us apart.”
Despite their hard work, the students aren’t sure they can measure up at the championship to the teams that have done really well on the field this year.
“I think this year we’re almost going for the experience,” said Knight.
“It’s more of an opportunity for us to grow as a team,” added Katelynn Panning.