Robotics rookies embrace new enterprise

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, December 19, 2010

When a critical decision on a pending surgery was facingStephanie Dunaway last year, she made her choice with one thing inmind – LEGOs.

In July 2009, Dunaway chose to have an advanced hysterectomyperformed by surgical robots. She went with clean metal over thewarm hands of her doctor to prove a point to her son, 12-year-oldDustin Dunaway, whose interest in robotics was piquing in aCopiah-Lincoln Community College LEGO robotics camp.

“I was so scared to do it, but then I thought, ‘Wait a minute.This is part of his future and I need to have faith,'” Dunawaysaid. “There’s no turning back.”

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The surgery was successful, and Dustin’s interest in roboticshas not wavered. He wants to be a doctor and master surgical robotson his own one day, and he’s preparing for that potential career asa member of Enterprise Attendance Center’s robotics team, “TheJacket Incepticons.”

It’s the first year of the robotics team, comprised of sixsixth-graders: Dustin Dunaway, Courtney Greer, Logan Holmes, NoahMcKone, Terrah Nelson and Brant White.

They use a computer to program a LEGO robot that followsinstructions to accomplish certain tasks on an obstacle-ladenplaying field. The kids program the robot to tell it to drive to acertain location on the board, perform a specific task when itarrives and change course to the next objective.

The team has to use math, computer and engineer skills. It canget complicated.

But the kids are off to a great start.

The Jacket Incepticons competed in their first-ever tournamenton Dec. 4, placing third among 35 teams statewide in the FIRST LEGOLeague Mississippi Championship Tournament, sponsored by NASA, theStennis Center and other partners.

Not bad for a bunch of rookies …

“Our kids did great,” said Kevin McKone, a Co-Lin scienceteacher and coach of the Enterprise team. “For a young team to comeand compete with the ‘big boys’ was very impressive.”

The young team scored 180 total points in the championship -only 10 points behind the second-place finishers – edging out 32other teams for third place in the robotics category.

Just as importantly, the Jacket Incepticons won the InspirationAward, a category that weighs cooperation and professionalism andis awarded to the best overall team. Scores are not yet final, butthe team also had a strong showing presenting its findings in abiomedical research project on treating lymphoma, possibly anothertop three finish.

It wasn’t easy, of course.

“Engineering is very competitive,” McKone said. “There’s a lotof teamwork involved. It’s all about problem-solving.”

There were plenty of problems to solve when the team arrived inThe Pit, a huge open space in the Hattiesburg Convention Centerwhere the 35 teams set up.

The team’s robot barely worked during the practice round. Itspun in circles and refused to follow its programming on the firstrun, then veered lazily off course on the second run.

But the kids plugged the robot into their computer, adjusted thecommand codes and went for a third practice run. It ranperfectly.

“I was the one who was wound up like a spring,” McKone said.”But those six kids were calm, and they got that robot up andrunning.”

The Jacket Incepticons held second place through the first tworounds, but a few deductions dropped them to third in round three.Resetting the robot during competition deducts five points, and therobot of a competing team who split the same table got to a sharedobjective first, capturing bonus points the Enterprise teamneeded.

The robotics season is over until next fall, but the JacketIncepticons have a strong foundation to build upon. Hopefully, morelocal schools will get involved before then and some friendly,off-season competition can take place.

“The kids are already asking about next season,” McKonesaid.

Compared to other school sports or clubs, the startup cost tofound a robotics team is quite reasonable. McKone said the roboticskit may be purchased for $300, and the obstacle course andregistration for the annual competitions are around $250.

And anyone can be the coach – it doesn’t require a “geek” or a”tech person” to lead a robotics team, McKone said.

Shannon Eubanks, principal at Enterprise, said the youngrobotics team provides more opportunities for students to learn.Practices call upon students’ higher levels of thinking, and localengineers or other experts can be brought in as guest lecturers togive students a better look into robotics in general and as acareer choice.

“Some kids are hands-on – they may not get facts and figures,but when you put it in front of them, they get the concept,” hesaid. “It’s another opportunity for our kids to be focused onacademics.”