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April 18, 2014

Gearing up

Vigo high schoolers prep for the robot world finals

TERRE HAUTE — A team of Vigo County high school students — and its robot — are gearing up to compete against 127 teams from throughout the world in an upcoming international robotics competition.

More than two dozen students will travel to St. Louis, Mo., on April 23-26 for the FIRST Robotics World Finals at Edward Jones Dome.

On Friday, the team — which is made up of students from Terre Haute North Vigo, Terre Haute South Vigo and West Vigo high schools — prepared for the World Finals and worked on some finishing touches on their project at the Branam Innovation Center in the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

The rookie team, called Area 5188 Classified Robotics, qualified for the World Finals by being a member of the winning alliance at this year’s FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional competition, hosted March 6 to 8 at Rose-Hulman. It also won the Rookie All-Star award.

 FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is a competition that, in many ways, tests skills in various areas, such as mechanical, electrical and computer programming and non-engineering (fundraising, community involvement, etc).

This year’s game is called Aerial Assist, in which teams of three robots — designed and built by each team — compete on a field and score points by throwing a ball (similar to an exercise ball) over a goal. The teams needed to design a robot that can pick up a ball, move it around and throw it to a designated goal. Human drivers use an XBox console to control the team’s robot.

Although Area 5188’s competition robot is already in St. Louis, team programmers and South students Ben Brubaker and Stephen Crowell on Friday were refining the programming code that would transmit data from a laptop camera to the robot to indirectly control it during the “autonomous” part of the competition — the first 10 seconds of the game.

They also made sure all codes work “flawlessly.”

“I feel like our robot is good. I’m confident,” Brubaker said, just days away from the competition.

His friend, Crowell, shared his confidence.

“I have no idea what we’re gonna come up against” at World Finals, he said, but he feels they can perform well. But even if they don’t win, “at least we have fun,” he said.

It was a fun learning experience for the two students who said they didn’t have a lot of programming experience before joining the team. But now, in addition to having learned complex codes for the robot, they are also learning Java, another programming language they hope to use in the future. They also learned the value of teamwork.

“We’ve all got to work together with our separate parts,”  Brubaker said.

Rachel Daniel, an Indiana State University student and a team mentor, said the team is divided into areas: the mechanical group, responsible for building the robot; the electrical and programming group, which made sure it has power; and the non-engineering aspect, called the “safety net,” which worked on fundraising and business plans for the group. The Safety Net is working with the Terre Haute Children’s Museum on some events this summer and is always looking for sponsors for the team, Daniel said.

Another mentor, Erik Lawrence, a senior at Rose-Hulman, said that because there are three areas to the team, there is room for any student with any skillset. But the also emphasizes hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering and math.

Problem-solving was one of the things that FIRST and the mentors taught the students, Lawrence said. “Teaching the [scientific] process to the students was a unique experience but it’s definitely rewarding.”

While Brubaker and Crowell checked the codes, another group of students held the cordless drill to rebuild a bumper they intended to put on the lower part of the robot. One of them was freshman Nate Lawson, who may be part of the pit crew for World Finals.

“My goal is to help get the team to at least the championship field,” he said.

Another member, Kevin Ndife, a senior, said the team has a good shot at winning.

“We’ve been doing a lot better than expected,” he said.

And because the members have been working hard and have seen their skills improve, they have a good chance, he added. “I’m excited. Happy to get this opportunity and ready to give it our all.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or

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