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Robots add fun to learning

Team Hammond participates this weekend FIRST Robotics CompetitiChicago.  |  Supplied photo

Team Hammond participates this weekend in the FIRST Robotics Competition in Chicago. | Supplied photo

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Updated: May 5, 2014 8:23AM



It’s dubbed a “sport for the mind,” but it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Robots designed and built by high school students with the help of their mentors enter the playing field as music blares from the stadium sound system and costumed mascots lead pompon-waving fans in a cheer.

The game begins, and the robots collaborate and compete in unique game scenarios in the FIRST Robotics Competition.

FIRST is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It was founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen with hopes “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition Midwest Regional runs from Thursday to Saturday at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. Teams from Michigan City, New Carlisle and Hammond are the Northwest Indiana teams joining 51 other high school teams.

To learn about this year’s game, Aerial Assist, about their team, and to get tips for spectators, I spoke with members of Team Hammond, last year’s Chicago Midwest Regionals champion. This impressive team has students from Clark, Gavit, Hammond and Morton high schools. With four national championships, Team Hammond has earned more top honors than any other team.

“This year’s game looks easy, and it will be easy for spectators to engage in it, but it’s really very complicated,” said Eric Brogdon, a senior at Gavit. “The objective is to throw a 24-inch ball over a 5-foot-high truss in the center of the field and into a goal to score points. Two alliances of three robots are on the field at one time.”

Brogdon, who is on the build, pit and drive crews for Team Hammond’s robot, has enjoyed working with the engineers who mentor the team. He plans to attend IUPUI to study motor sports engineering.

“One of the challenges this year is ball control — to catch, pass and throw. It’s much harder than we thought,” he said.

Teammate Michael Wippo, a 10th-grader at Morton, said he has been exposed to how engineers solve problems and learn from prototypes. He also appreciates that FIRST Robotics instills helping and cooperation among participants.

“This year’s game was designed to encourage a lot of passing the ball between the robots in each alliance. When you score, you’ll earn extra points for each assist,” Wippo said.

He said assists also come from team alumni.

“A lot of previous students drop by. One is now a mentor,” he said. “It’s like they don’t really leave because they come back to help and suggest — but the students do the work.”

And work they do, meeting seven days a week since January, when the robot components were delivered and this year’s game details were announced via a live telecast.

“It’s crazy that a group of students can build these in six weeks, and it’s interesting to see how many different designs and approaches there will be,” Mitchell Beard, a 10th-grader from Gavit, told me.

Beard said he was looking forward to getting involved on the team since first seeing the competition at age 7, when his sister was a team member.

“There’s lots of music, lights and a lot of excitement,” he said. “Each team has 12 matches with random alliances with two other teams each match. You can go down to the pit area between matches, see the robots up close and see the students doing maintenance. A lot of the time, you can talk to them, and they’re happy to show off what their team has accomplished.

“If you go to a regional once, then you’ll be hooked.”

Darrell Noble, a team mentor, has been hooked since Day 1 of Team Hammond, 19 years ago.

“This encourages sciences and technology at the high school level, but not all students can build a robot,” he said. “We also have others who take pictures, make videos, do writing and work on the website. The students also have to work on oral presentation skills and eye contact. They also learn ‘gracious professionalism’ and see what they can do to get other teams up and running when they need help. It’s a great program.

The Pavilion is at 525 S. Racine Ave. in Chicago. Parking in the adjacent lot is $10.

Practice rounds run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The opening ceremony is at 8:30 a.m. Friday, followed by qualification matches from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Qualification matches continue from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. The finals are from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.



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