Middle school students send their robots off to work



Northeast Middle School hosted the Middle School Robotics Challenge on Thursday, April 12.

All four middle school locations had teams of about 15 students. The “AutoBots”, representing Chippens Hill Middle School, were supervised by Sarah Brown, Rodney Ellsworth, and Robert McConnell. The “S.W.A.T. Team”, representing Greene-Hills, was supervised by Adam Sample. West Bristol’s “WAR – Wolves and Robots,” were supervised by Rocco Martino. And, Northeast’s “TSA Technology Student Alliance,” were supervised by Vince Jennetta and David Luchina.

The overall teams were divided into groups of three to five students, and those smaller groups worked to take on each challenge.

The overall challenge consisted of three rounds of three areas of competition. Each round was timed, giving students 20 minutes to evaluate their task, program and reprogram their robots accordingly, and then to attempt the course.

Themed after the Winter Olympics, each team had to program and guide their robot through a robo-biathlon, which mimicked a cross country skiing race; a game of robo-hockey, in which the robot had to approach and shoot the puck from five different targets; and, robo-curling, where each robot needed to push a curling “stone” into a target.

“My colleagues and I, the middle school engineering teachers, we’ve been 3D printing components for the various challenges for the last several months. We’ve laid everything out, drawn things in CAD [Computer Aided Design] to make all of the challenges, came up with the rules, created the design for the challenges, all ourselves, and then last night we were here until nearly eight o’clock setting up the space,” said Jennetta. “They’re [the students] very excited, a little nervous; you see them in the classroom and after school, they’re goofy and the kids we’re used to, but suddenly I see in their faces that sense of apprehension and excitement, and I think they’re all ready.”

Each individual challenge had four judges, one to observe and tally the scores of each team.

Justin Malley of the Bristol Development Authority, returned to judge for the second year in a row, and said he was honored to have been invited.

“I’m just a sucker for any program that’s sort of technology based, or trades based, that STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] piece within the school system,” said Malley. “When we go out and we visit manufacturer’s and our technical businesses, I know that one of the concerns of almost every business owner is “Where are we going to find our employees in the future?”, and the interest is, “How do we get more young people interested in STEM careers?” Programs like this, at this age too, I love that it’s here at the middle school level to encourage this sort of interest in young folks so, I’m a sucker for these programs, it’s a ton of fun. I’m just honored to be here as a judge.”

“We’ve been meeting probably since February, every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday after school, so, we don’t see the challenges, but we try to give them scenarios to run so that when they get here it’ll help them out a little bit,” said Rodney Ellsworth. “I would say the big part would be a lot of collaboration, learning to work together, learning to do your role and what you need to do, because each one of them has a specific role of what they’re going to do today, and then just communicating what they need to do; collaboration is as big part of it.”

The Chippens Hill AutoBots took home seven medals overall, five bronze and two silvers. In round one they received eight points in curling, two points in hockey, and three points in the biathlon. During the second round the scored three points in curling, one point in hockey, and three points in the biathlon. Round three brought one point in curling, three points in hockey, and two points in the biathlon.

“We have three presidents, or three officers overall, in our group that were elected overall by predecessors the year before. We come together and we choose newcomers that come into the group, then we basically start training for this. I set up tables in my workshop to try to simulate what they’re doing here,” said Adam Sample. “So, basically, with them trying to get ready, I challenge them. I set up the courses in my lab to be much harder than what possibly could be imagined here, whether it’s making a goal that’s an inch to two inches wide, I try to push them harder than what they would experience here, that way their stress levels get increased because they need to obviously experience that, because when it comes this, the stress level does hit here, but then when the event actually happens it’s more like an exhale and they just go to work and do their thing. I keep trying to tell them, “Keep talking, keep working,” because it’s an overall team thing, you know? We’ve got 15 members in our group and I make sure that there’s five for each overall group, and it’s all about coming together; collaboration is a huge key factor with anything that’s a team overall sport.”

The Greene-Hills S.W.A.T. Team won nine medals, one bronze, four silver, and four gold. In the first round, they scored four points in curling, two points in hockey, and ten points in the biathlon. Round two brought them a 4.3 in curling, four points in hockey, and eight points in the biathlon. Their final round saw three points in curling, two points in hockey, and eight points in the biathlon.

The Northeast TSA received seven medals, three bronze, one silver, and three gold. They scored six points in curling, four points in hockey, and two points in the biathlon during round one. The second round passed with a 3.3 in curling, five points in hockey, and three points in the biathlon. TSA’s final round earned them two points in curling, four points in hockey, and three points in the biathlon.

“We have been practicing since November, running little things, just to kind of get them used to it. They don’t really know going into it what the real challenge is, but they know they have to navigate something, so they get used to turning, get used to the sensors and all that, but, a lot of prep was just practice and practice,” said Rocco Martino. “I think they’re doing great, the main thing is just staying relaxed and have fun. I don’t put much thought into what happens afterwards, as long as they had fun and tried.”

The West Bristol Wolves and Robots won an overall six medals, one bronze, four silver, and one gold. In round one they received two points in curling, zero points in hockey, and four points in the biathlon. Round two brought three points in curling, zero points in hockey, and seven points in the biathlon. Their final round consisted of a 3.9 in curling, zero points in hockey, and four points in the biathlon.

“We’ve got a really diverse group of judges here from local business and industry who’ve volunteered their time,” said Jennetta. “I think there’s a sense that these tech firms are looking for the future workers to be prepared for whatever they happen to be involved in, and so they’re more than willing to come here and assist with these middle school kids. We’re an exploratory program in the middle school, but we’re trying to encourage these kids to consider a pathway that will potentially lead them to a STEM career.”

Judges included Bristol Fire Chief Jay Kolakowski; Justin Malley of the Bristol Development Authority; Brian Reardon of Bristol Adult Education; Heather Volkens, of Bauer Inc.; Amy Wernicki, an advisor at Bristol Eastern High School; Manny Martinez of the Boy Scouts of America; Keith Radziwon of Conveyco; Melanie Irizarry of the Connecticut Bureau of Enterprise Systems and Tech.; Parrish Castor of DaCruz Manufacturing; Kelly Selander of Orafol; Paul Mendyka of Otis Elevator; Nikki Moore of Otis Elevator; Kathleen McKay of Otis Elevator; Ben Shea, a student at St. Paul High School; and Ben Speaker, a student of St. Paul High School.