TMCNet:  Successfully blending science, mechanics, teamwork, fun

[December 21, 2011]

Successfully blending science, mechanics, teamwork, fun

Dec 21, 2011 (The Reidsville Review - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- "We need to shave about 15 seconds off our time if we want to beat our regional score," Jimmy Shreve told the Dragons Robotics Team. "We might have won there with 134 points, but it's probably going to take 180 or more to win at the state level." Shreve, a fifth-grade teacher at Dillard Elementary School, was challenging the seven members of the Dragons last Friday to fine-tune and tweak their robots for the upcoming battle against winners from other regional competitions across North Carolina.

The Dragons are three fourth-grade and four fifth-grade DES students that design, build and program robots for competition in the state's FIRST LEGO League. In only its third season of competition, the school's robotics team captured first place at the regional championships in Winston-Salem on Nov. 19. That victory qualifies the Dillard team to advance to the state championship Jan. 21 at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

"The really amazing part of all this is that, when the competitions begin, these students are completely on their own -- and that's the way it should be," Shreve said. "They put in a lot of work in the three months leading up to regionals, and it comes down to what they've learned when they get to that point." What they learn is how to come up with practical, real-world solutions to problems. Those problems not only involve the design and construction of their competition robots, but research challenges as well.

Competitors in the FL League are presented with a new challenge each season which requires them to research a focus topic, identify a problem and develop a practical solution. This year's focus topic was "Food Factor." The challenge was to find a food safety problem, locate the potential danger points and create a way to fix the problem.

The research project and a 5-minute presentation to a panel of judges weighs heavily in deciding winners at FL League competitions. The project portion of the competition accounts for 65 percent of the final score, while the actual robotics performance receives the remaining 35 percent.

Shreve, who coaches the team along with Dillard EC teacher Josh Eanes, said early discussions in team meetings led to looking into problems with production and storage of milk. The team members visited a working dairy farm and dairy processing plant to see if they could spot any potential problems.

"We didn't see any problems there, so we started looking at transport and storage areas," fifth-grade team member Rachel Dalton said. "We visited Food Lion to see how they received and stored the milk." The team learned that milk needed to be transported and stored at 36 degrees to remain safe. After finding no problems with the dairy delivery trucks or grocery storage, the team decided that consumers were the weak link.

Fourth-grade member Jackson Boles said it was because shoppers took so long to get the milk from the store to their home.

"It could take 30 minutes or more from the time they pick it up at the store, finish shopping and drive home," Boles said. "The milk is getting warmer all that time." The solution arrived at by the students involved creating a milk container that included a refrigeration gel pack which maintained the correct temperature long enough to transport the milk safely from the store to the refrigerator at home. The gel is made of water, propylene glycol and hydroxpropyl methylcellulose.

"When the students presented their material to the judges, they were impressed they not only came up with such a feasible, real-world solution, but that they could actually pronounce the names of the chemicals to be used," Shreve said. "They told the judges they learned how to pronounce them by watching You Tube." The real-world solutions that led the team to their first regional championship did not stop with the research aspect, however. They took what previous teams had learned about the robotics portion and made specific changes to the robots they made and used in competition.

The fifth-grade members of the team -- Dalton, Libba Carbone, Levi Smith and Oscar Hernandez -- competed in the 2010-11 FL League season. Shreve said combining fourth- and fifth-grade students gives the team consistency by having returning members pass on their experience to new members.

New fourth-grade members -- Boles, Andrew Aguirre and Chandler Joyce -- said the toughest part of the competition was how crazy things could get.

"Things were really intense when you get on the competition floor," Joyce said. "All the people and the bright lights make you sort of jumpy and nervous." But Shreve said the Dillard Dragons handled the pressure well, moving smoothly from the presentation portion to the robot competition tables.

"We decided early on that the robots should be designed so simply that anyone on the team could take it apart, repair it and put it back together right there at the competition table," Shreve said. "By keeping the design small and simple, there was less that could go wrong and the robot could move easily to any spot on the competition table. It worked out well enough to give us the top score at regionals." Now the team's challenge is to learn more about its research project -- members plan to talk to a chemical engineer to learn more about the feasibility of their gel pack solution, and to fine-tune the commands for their robots. That job will fall largely to Carbone.

"I joined the team because I thought it sounded interesting," Carbone said. "Anyway, I really did like the computer part of it. I like figuring out the right programming to get the robot to go from place to place on the mat." Hopefully, all the pieces will fall into place for the Dragons to come home from the Jan. 21 competition with another first place trophy, this time for a state championship.

"That would be so cool," Boles said. "And we already have someone that can feed us at nationals in St. Louis. Andrew has a relative that lives there." ___ (c)2011 The Reidsville Review (Reidsville, N.C.) Visit The Reidsville Review (Reidsville, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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