(Posted Jan. 23, 2020)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
It was the morning of Dec. 7 and the Robo-Raiders were set to embark on their maiden voyage.
Seated inside the yellow transport were more than a dozen boys and girls from the robotics club at London Middle School, all of whom were trying to adhere to the sense of fearlessness their nickname evokes. Though they told themselves they were ready for the challenge ahead, only later were they able to admit they were anything but.
“I think it is now safe to say that we all had a big case of the nerves,” said Ryan Appis, the club’s co-advisor who is also a seventh-grade science teacher at the school.
Throughout the hour-long drive that would take them to North Union Middle School in Richwood, the two teams discussed strategies for their public debut in the realm of competitive robotics and tried not to think of their robots that would be pitted against those of veteran clubs across the state.
When they arrived at the school and looked around at the competition, their jaws dropped to the gymnasium floor.
“There was this one school that built a robot with a conveyor belt,” said seventh-grader Dakota Cutlip. “A real life conveyor belt. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it but it was real and it worked.”
“Another school had built a robot that was almost the size of the arena,” added eighth-grader Daniel Johnson, referring to the 4-by-8-foot rectangular field where the robots compete. “I thought it would be too big to maneuver around but it maneuvered just fine.”
Upon seeing the looks on their students’ faces, Appis and his fellow club co-advisor Sean Thompson told the young competitors to be confident in their work and reminded them to have fun. The teams said the latter was easier to do than the former.
“Our robot was the smallest one there and probably the most basic in design,” said seventh-grader Brian Akers, who is one of six boys to compete for the Robo-Raiders.
“What do you mean by ‘probably?’” asked eighth-grader Anthony Lutz. “It was.”
While the boys’ team struggled with the size of their robot, the girls’ team discovered theirs had suffered a major malfunction.
“A piece of wiring fell out and we put it back in the wrong place,” said Hailey Balla, one of five girls on the competitive robotics team. “It took us a while to get it right, and it didn’t work all that well in the first place.”
Despite size and wiring setbacks, the two teams competed to the best of their ability, working together with other schools by forming alliances and collaborating to get their robots to pick up balls and place them in or on cubes or to pick up cubes and place them on platforms or in color corresponding corners.
The London boys’ team managed to get their robot to pick up a cube and place it on a platform–a difficult challenge for a veteran team, let alone a new one–but during a driver switch session, it fell off and the team lost their points.
“One of the challenges is to have one driver control the robot for 30 seconds around the arena and then switch to allow another drive to do it for another 30 seconds,” Appis explained. “Well, during this switch, as we were all excited about placing this cube on the top of the platform, Daniel accidentally knocked the cube over during the transition and we lost our points. We now lovingly refer to this move as ‘pulling a Daniel.’”
In his defense, Johnson said it can happen to the best of drivers, but he just happened to be very nervous at that time.
“I’m sure it will happen again, too,” he said. “But hopefully to someone else instead.”
While the boys were making strides in the arena, the girls had a more difficult time.
“Nothing was working for us,” lamented Vada Belmont.
Appis said it was more likely due to their lack of experience than anything else.
“The robotics club has been around for four years, but this is the first year for our competitive teams,” he said. “Our girls’ team is comprised of almost all sixth-graders, whereas our boys are veterans, so (the girls) lack that building experience.”
Admittedly, neither team fared very well at their first competition. Unofficially, the boys placed 26th and the girls placed 33rd. A total of 34 teams competed.
Each team said they would do better at the next event.
“I can see us winning,” Lutz said.
“Maybe we’ll get in the top 15 this time,” Cutlip said.
“How about we just try to make it into the finals?” Appis said. “That would be a good accomplishment.”
“It would be nice for ours to work,” Balla commented.
Since their first competition last month, London’s two competitive teams have been perfecting their robots and driving skills at each club meeting. On Feb. 22, they will participate in the Fairbanks Middle School Squared Away Qualifier at Tolles Career and Technical Center in Plain City. After that event, the teams will rejoin the rest of the robotics club and continue to work on robotics, coding, three-dimensional modeling, and architectural and engineering projects.
Appis said that because so many members were interested in participating in the robotics competition, the club had to establish an application process to whittle down the numbers for its inaugural year. He added that due to the growing popularity of the club and the interest in the competitive portion, they hope to expand their numbers next year.
“I believe that the future of the robotics club at the school is really bright, and I think that, down the road, we could become an elite program and even host our own tournaments,” Appis said. “Having a robotics tournament looks really good on the school, on the community and it is great outreach for other students to let them know that we have strong academics, as well as athletics, here in London.”