By Pete Zamplas- Flat Rock rocked in an inaugural radio-operated robot war of middle school student engineers and pilots. The Henderson County Public Schools Mario Kart Challenge was May 7, in Hendersonville Middle School (HMS).
HMS instructor Hugh Price put it on, and officiated. This showcases Project Lead The Way (PLTW). PLTW in middle and high schools gets students into engineering and computer and biomedical sciences plus creative thinking, collaboration and problem-solving.
This year’s contest was named after racing video game Mario Kart. Teams (typically two students) each built one robotic vehicle, with wheels and a motorized attack arm to burst foes’ balloons and hopes. Most contestants were in eighth grade, and in a technical last hurrah of middle school.
Flat Rock Middle’s sole contestant Kaleb Winchell outscored all six teams combined from host HMS. His much faster and more mobile Eagle Strike Force dominated with 59 total points. He was scorching with 18 points (next-best BB8 hd three) in the first of three rounds, 13 then 28 in the finale.
The eighth-grader competed by himself.
Winchell said it felt “great” to triumph. He said the key was his robot was faster, and more maneuverable. At one point, he zig-zagged near and behind the second-place bot. Also, his balloon-bursting pin was longer than most. Programming video games is Winchell’s dream career.
Runner-up Mini Glaive (“Vladimir Lenin”) had 19, and did its best in round three with 10 points. A glaive is a European pole-arm with single-edged blade at the end — just as each robo-vehicle used to burst foes’ balloons for two points each. Jack Miller piloted Mini Glaive. He and fellow HMS eighth-grader Rick Price designed and built it. They were very vocal and animated in the heat of battle. Miller often stood as he sent Glaive attacking, and laughed when succeeding.
In contrast, quiet assassin Winchell remained silent and sitting (next to Miller) in a corner of the sidelines. He said he stayed focus, despite outbursts from the others. “I heard, but didn’t listen.” His STEM tech teacher at FRMS, Tony Campbell, was proud of shy Winchell concentrating despite getting “put outside his comfort zone” in the noisy, pressured event.
The Electric Deadite was third with 14 — 12 in the final round. BB8 totaled seven points, Here Comes Trouble four, Cell-X two, and R2D2 zero.
Deadite operator Ford Pace is finishing sixth grade, and is two years younger than most Mario Kart foes. He thus looms as an experienced middle school robotics competitor, for the next two years.
He learned to try not to verbally tip off about any vulnerability. Early on, he blurted out how his craft’s attacking arm was not working. Winchell adapted on the fly, swooping Attack Force in to take out the risk-free target since Deadite could not retaliate in balloon popping.In another tactical adjustment, Miller went from attack to evasion as Strike Force “kept busting balloons. We had to do something,” to avoid elimination.
One bonus point is awarded per balloon still intact and on the craft, at round’s end. Each robot craft started a round with two balloons attached to its rear metallic bumper. One person operated the bot, with an electronic remote control linked to the craft’s antenna receptor. The round ended after time, or earlier once there was a sole survivor with a balloon attached. Once both of a bot’s balloons were gone, Price took it off of the combat floor.
Strike Force and Here Comes Trouble were the only ones with multiple gear ratios. Strike Force had three such gears, for greater range of motion and acceleration. It had three sets of wheels — two large wheels on the sides and a pair of smaller green (Eagle color) ones in front.
Other student creators said they learned a prime lesson of how added gears make for mobile robots. Winchell said a short wheel base further helped balance and motion.
Extra-long Trouble was weaponized with a long propellor. A difference between bots was the direction in which the striking arm moved. The runner-up among others chopped up and down. That enabled getting over the target, then smashing surely onto it.
There was sword fighting per say, between two such bots in round two. Miller noted his attacking arm once bent when crashing on a follow-through, and that threw off his aim in remote-controlling it. He realizes a remedy is a catch bar down low, so the arm would bounce off of it instead of crash onto the classroom floor.
Winner Eagle Strike Force instead swung sideways back and forth — not up and down. That backfired after the metal part bent, sending the trajectory higher. Contestants could not adjust their robots during a round, nor otherwise go onto the combat/playing field.
For a while, Eagle’s arm swung just over Mini Glaive’s surviving balloon that had slipped lower to the ground. (Miller said his other balloon had been pried off, but not burst.) Lady Luck was thus on Glaive’s side, for eluding several would-be kills and lasting to register kills of its own.
But more often, Eagle Strike Force did quick damage to foes. Campbell grinned afterward calling it a “double popper,” whenever the craft quickly stuck one balloon on a rival and then the other one to knock it out of the round.
There was a NASCAR-like rules inspection, as a rival challenged the height of the Force’s bumper guard. It had to be 4-6 inches. Campbell chuckled that it measured 5 and 7/8 inches, and thus conformed.
Ginny Livingston Pace, Ford’s mother, was among parents cheering during the competition. Her husband is Mark Pace. Ginny said Ford’s technical aptitude and persistence has shown early, far beyond his reading advanced books or playing X-Box tactical games for hours on end. When younger he assembled a Star Wars Millennial Falcon space ship out of 4,500 Lego® pieces — in nine hours, staying on task.
Lego® is what HMS students used for years of building basic robots, before stepping up to metal in this academic year. FRMS does not have a robotics team per say, but Winchell sure represented the school well last week.
Contest organizer Hugh Price said next middle school invitationals may be mostly industrial robotic applications such as of speed, lifting and placement. He had his students make an intricate windmill to do such tasks as pump water and grind flour.
Eighth-grade robotic competitors will learn much more robotics in high school this fall, and can work together on the Gorillas county wide team.