Mechanical meeting of middle school minds

The robots had to play a tune when they crossed the finish line.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The timing couldn't have been worse.
As Jovan McCree and Oscar Akins dug through a bin of Lego blocks, a judge leaned over.
"You're first," the man said, "after the break."
Jovan, Oscar and their teammates from Hillman Middle School in Youngstown didn't flinch. They simply dug faster.
The problem they sought to solve was simple, but oh so complicated, as the seconds ticked away. The tanklike tracks on their miniature robot kept slipping off the gears. They decided it would be better to go with wheels.
The team of seventh-grade boys was among those competing Friday in the 2004 Northeast Ohio Robotics Competition for middle school pupils held in Youngstown State University's Stambaugh Stadium gymnasium.
More than 100 youngsters from 13 middle schools in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties participated in the event that pitted their computer-programmed robots against each other.
Back to drawing board
When the Hillman team gave their newly remodeled robot a test spin, it fell apart. It was back to the Lego bin. But within minutes, robot No. 5 -- dubbed "Power Zone" -- was ready to roll.
In competition, it crawled 5 feet, 8 inches along the thick, curving black line it was required to follow.
They weren't alone in their frustration, however.
As a team from Turner Middle School in Warren waited to compete, the laptop computer they used for programming froze up.
"We remodeled it several times and changed the gearing several times," eighth-grader Kortnee Price said. "Learning how to program it is the hardest part."
Two teams from the school began working on their robots in October.
"It teaches them to work as a team. That's our biggest thing," said Turner math teacher John Penman. "No matter what they struggle with -- through success and failure -- they're still sticking together as a team."
Musical conclusion
As members of a Canfield Village Middle School team awaited their turn at the starting line, seventh-grader Jarrett Scacchetti sat behind a laptop to program music for a robot named "The Disaster." Competition rules say a robot must not only reach the finish line, but also play a tune when it gets there.
"I'm not very athletic, and this is something I'm interested in," said teammate Christopher Gatti, a seventh-grader.
"I'm athletic, but I like building things. I like building robots," added D.J. Fetty, also in seventh grade, as he explained why he enjoyed competing. "I've been interested in building robots since I was 3 years old. So, it's a team where you build things. What could be better than that?"
Team members each had their roles. Some created a PowerPoint program for the presentation part of the competition; others were designers or builders.
Although his team's robot had large plastic eyes and tubes to create the western hat and rim of the "Arby's smile" logo used for the fast-food chain, D.J. said design is not important, adding "the more gingerbread on it, the less it's gonna run."
Sensor technique
Team captain Brian Perrett, an eighth-grader, explained how the robots work as he watched other schools compete. Sensors on the robots detect dark and light; pupils program them to turn when shades change, thereby staying on course along the black line. Brian said a trick was using two sensors on the robot instead of just one.
As he explained, applause broke out in the gym. "The Beast," a robot belonging to a team from Volney Rogers Junior High School in Youngstown, had made it to the finish line and played its music. (Team member Bradley Slabe, an eighth-grader, said the tune was the theme of the golf team at "Crazy Go Nuts" University.)
When the team had practiced earlier in the day, their robot simply went in circles. After 10 minutes of programming, it completed the task in competition.
Eighth-grader Tim Martin said he wasn't sure how things would turn out. "We were really excited," he said.

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