CSM Robotics Games Thrill Spectators, Draw Hundreds

Overwhelming Turnout Spurs Goal: 100 Percent School Participation in 2010

“I want every school in Southern Maryland to be here next year!” said Jeff Tjiputra, organizer of the College of Southern Maryland Robotics Challenge as well as the Maryland regional FIRST Tech competition, and CSM chair of the business and technology division. “We have been overwhelmed by the response from schools wanting to participate in this year’s competition,” Tjiputra said, adding, “The purpose of the competition is to get Southern Maryland involved in robotics competitions and we want all Southern Maryland schools to participate.”

To the students gathered, Tjiputra encouraged them to go out and enlist their friends at schools who were not represented this year to join in next year’s competition.

This robotics challenge began back in September 2008, when the names and rules of the games were announced, and schools around the region began putting together teams of students interested in engineering. Some of the high school teams are made up of students enrolled in engineering classes where this competition is part of their curriculum. Other high school teams and elementary and middle school teams form as extracurricular clubs that meet before or after school or on weekends. 

The robot kits are different for the elementary/middle school division and the high school division, but each needs to be constructed and programmed to perform tasks either through manipulation with a controller or autonomously. The kits can be pricy so teams look for funding from schools, their own fundraising efforts or business sponsorships.

“Many of you will get into science, technology, engineering and math careers because of experiences like this one today,” CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried said addressing the students gathered.

According to the most recent Higher Education Research Institute survey of college freshman, Gottfried said, interest in engineering has rebounded from the decade lows and a three-year decline was reversed in 2008, with 9.4 percent of freshmen reporting interest in the major and 7.4 percent expressing interest in engineering as a probable career. “I can only surmise from this that initiatives such as robotics competitions must be working,” Gottfried added.

“Fun is going to be a major part of what goes on here today,” said Capt. Matt Scassero, vice commander for the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Capt. Scassero is no stranger to excitement—with a variety of assignments on aircraft carriers and on flight combat missions in Kosovo and Iraq, deployments to six of the seven seas and to 25 nations across five continents. Yet, he was genuinely excited to participate in his first Southern Maryland robotics competition.

“The young people around us today are in the ring and they are ready to rumble!” Scassero said to the crowd of 60 teams from 33 Southern Maryland elementary, middle and high schools and five high school teams from Annapolis, Carroll County and Virginia. “Young, intelligent creative minds have taken on a challenge over a several- month period, dedicating their time and energies to solving problems that are not that dissimilar to the problems we are attempting to solve on a larger global stage. The fact that most, if not all of them will do it successfully is almost immaterial. The fact that they are trying, is everything.” Scassero added.

            Trying was exactly the mantra of the Barstow Elementary’s ‘Determinators’. A late entry to the competition, the Determinators overcame unbelievable obstacles when just days before the competition they lost the entire programming for their robot, said Wendy Bowman, a fifth-grade teacher at Barstow. Reprogramming a second time must have been a charm, as the team was in first place following the qualifying rounds of competition.

            Clad in bright orange T-shirts, the Barstow Elementary team members, coaches and parents were jazzed up during the entire day of competition which began with an 8 a.m. check-in and ran through the 5:30 p.m. closing ceremony.

            When it was all over, the Determinators had won the Robot Performance Award with a high score of 265 points which earned them the title of overall tournament winner in the Elementary/Middle School Division. Another Barstow  team, Extreme, came away with the Project Award given to the team that presented innovative solutions and creative in-depth understanding of the project, according to championship judges.

            The Champion’s Award, which is determined by the judges and considered the most prestigious award that any team can win, was given to Mutual Elementary’s Mustang’s Chargers as “the team whose members inspire and motivate others about the excitement of science and technology, solve problems and demonstrate respect and gracious professionalism to everyone involved in the competition,” according to tournament judges.

            Throughout the day students raced from competition arenas to their assigned workrooms in campus classrooms across the street. No parents or teachers attempted to tell them not to run in the halls.

            “I think the competition is more nerve-racking for the parents,” said Monica Silbas, mother of Windy Hill Middle School’s LEGO Knights team member Diego Ybarra.

Nervous energy boiled over into dance as musical interludes during judging brought participants and spectators onto the gym floor to move to “Y.M.C.A.”, the “Electric Slide” and “The Macarena.” It turns out, engineers do have rhythm.

            Engineers also know how to devise an interesting competition. For the high school division, the teams are individually scored and ranked during the qualifying rounds as teams are randomly matched in alliances to compete against other alliances. The matches consist of an opening autonomous period where the pre-programmed robots attempt to score points without any human intervention. Then the team drivers grab their controllers and attempt to move blue or red foam cubes to score points and assist their alliance team in scoring, while blocking, nudging or otherwise irritating their opponents.

            As in television’s “Survivor” program, teams take note of the strengths and weaknesses of alliance members and competitors throughout the matches. The top eight teams following the qualifying rounds get to choose among the remaining teams the ones they want to join their alliance.

            In the quarterfinals, one alliance was made up of three Thomas Stone teams. The fourth Thomas Stone team was invited to join an alliance with Home Schoolers of Southern Maryland from Hollywood and Spear Academy of Mechanicsville. Beth Hastings, a tech education teacher from Thomas Stone, coached all four teams as part of her engineering curriculum. The students worked on their robots with her coaching during class but they were on their own in the arena, according to Hastings who could not divide herself among the teams. “This competition gives students another venue besides sports. It gives them a feeling of what engineers do and how they have learn to work together as a team and accept other people’s ideas,” she added.

            Calvert County Board of Education Member Rose Crunkleton agreed, “The event was a great hit with the kids, who clearly were having a lot of fun. And what a wonderful educational experience for them,” she said. “Students not only learned technical skills like robot programming and engineering, but also personal skills like team work and strategic thinking, and speaking to a small audience.”

            In the finals, the Iron Eagles from Annapolis Area Christian School, the Transformers from the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center and Team 874A from Great Mills High School formed the blue alliance completing against the red alliance composed of SPEAR-it from Spear Academy in Mechanicsville, Spock-Itz from Home Schoolers of Southern Maryland in Hollywood and The Red Robins from Thomas Stone.

            Following the first match the blue alliance was ahead 20-19. In the second match the tables turned when Great Mills’ robot was fouled up on a cube and the Eagles missed several points miscalculating and dropping cubes outside the ring. Red alliance’s SPEAR-it also had difficulty, losing power on the field but coming out ahead, 23-12. The final match proved decisive for the blue alliance, winning 48-11.  

In the closing ceremony, BAE Systems Operations Director of Systems Development and Integration Tom Garrison asked first-time robotics students to stand, “I applaud your courage,” he said. When second-time robotics participants stood, he said, “I applaud your persistence.”  When third-time robotics participants stood, he said, “I applaud your commitment. With courage, persistence and commitment you are going to succeed in whatever you do!”

Garrison, a retired Navy captain with more than 25 years operational service in carrier aviation and almost 3,000 hours in his flight logbook, told students that he was not an engineer but that he “wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in this gym is an engineer one day.”

 “It takes an army of people to make this happen,” said Gottfried, listing BAE Systems’ donation of funds and volunteer manpower, and Dominion Energy’s grant to fund the purchase of 20 robot kits for the middle/elementary school division. Other sponsors were Energetics Technology Center, TIME Center, Charles County Technology Council, the Patuxent Partnership, Northrop Grumman, Wyle, Charles County Economic Council, VEX Robotics Design Systems, Johnston & Associates, the FRC 836 RoboBees and the Grace Brethren CyberKnights FLL Team.

For photos and a listing of all award winners, visit http://www.csmd.edu/roboticschallenge/.