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Strong ARMing robots

Local teams practice for upcoming state competition

ISHPEMING — Even though Monday was a snow day, one room at Westwood High School was filled with whirring sounds and the occasional frustrated grunt.

It was all for a good purpose, however. Robotics teams from Aspen Ridge School, North Star Montessori Academy and Bothwell Middle School worked on their robots, with some heading for a FIRST Tech Challenge state competition downstate next weekend.

Kristen Grondz, head coach for the Robotic Strong ARMS from Aspen Ridge, helped oversee Monday’s session. ARMS stands for Aspen Ridge Middle School.

FIRST Tech Challenge is a national program, the acronym being For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST Tech Challenge teams, composed of up to 15 team members grades 7-12, are challenged to design, build, program and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge in an alliance format, according to its website at firstinspires.org.

This year’s game is SKYSTONE.

“Their goal is to get their blocks from this side of the field over onto the platform and get them stacked to build skyscrapers,” she said.

That’s easier said than done. Students had to use a remote-controlled device to move a robot’s parts and get the robot to move in the desired direction.

Even stacking the blocks was challenging since a wrong move could topple the stack, hence the grunts.

SKYSTONE, she said, is based on “Star Wars” to get the kids to think about creating a sustainable future with a growing population.

The red and blue Strong ARMS teams were joined in the Monday practice session by the Robotic Narwhals from Bothwell and the RoboGators from North Star. Grondz said the red Strong ARMS team and the RoboGators will take part in the state competition in Battle Creek on Dec. 13-14.

Machines also differed from each other.

“This particular robot uses suction,” she said of the red Strong ARMS team’s machine.

Kits and parts for the robots are ordered, with the students undergoing the entire engineering process, she said.

“They have to be approved parts, but there’s really not a whole lot that’s off limits for them,” Kristen Grondz said. “The sky’s the limit on what they can do with their robots.”

Robots also require a lot of fine tuning, which was a purpose of Monday’s gathering.

Two members of the red Strong ARMS team involved in that fine turning who practiced moving blocks with their robots were Aspen Ridge students Gabe Grondz, a seventh-grader and the coach’s son, and eighth-grader Christian Hurkmans.

Gabe Grondz acknowledged being a little rusty.

“We haven’t done it in a while, so we’re just practicing driving and programming our autonomous mode,” he said.

It’s likely more than a bit of fun for them, but it’s also educational.

“I’m learning how to put stuff together like this,” Hurkmans said.

Gabe Grondz is focused on how to make the robot work.

“There were some roadblocks we had to go over, like programming the servos to go through at 60 degrees,” he said.

Servos, they explained, are miniature motors that aren’t as powerful as others.

As with many scholastic projects, working on robotics can help youngsters develop skills that could prove useful later in life.

“We can use our building experiences to build other things and fix things instead of having to pay someone to do it, and then working as a team,” Gabe Grondz said. “You have to do that. We made the choice of using two controllers, so we have to communicate with each other to know what to do.”

Programming also helps him.

“In today’s day and age, a lot of things need programming,” he said.

Hurkmans noted the building process, which has a complicated design, will aid him when he constructs other things — a hobby of his.

“It kind of gives me more ideas on how I could build something,” Hurkmans said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.

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