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SOME COMPETITORS TOOK A RATHER PHILOSOPHIC RESPONSE TO THE OUTCOME.



Published: Sat, January 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Some competitors took a rather philosophic response to the outcome.

YOUNGSTOWN -- These aren't your father's Legos.

Oh, the colors are the same -- yellow, blue, red and white -- and they still snap together. But these Legos are used to build robots that are fast and fancy and quite high-tech.

And they're teaching lessons about science, math, computer programming, critical thinking, teamwork and creativity.

Creative robotics?

Absolutely, said Travis Hoffman, 27, a Delphi engineer who works with the robotics team from Harry B. Turner Middle School in Warren.

"Engineers design and create things that make the world a better place," Hoffman said. "That's not all math and science. You have to be creative."

The competition

Hoffman and Turner math teacher John Penman were at Youngstown State University Friday with the school's three-person team -- and more than 100 other middle schoolers -- for the Northeast Ohio Robotics Competition. It provides students with hands-on learning experience through competition. There are separate divisions for middle and high schools.

Pupils work after school all year to build Lego-based robots that are programmed to travel on a course. There's no remote control here or gentle guiding along the path; once the robot is set down on the course, the team members don't touch it. It goes -- or doesn't -- on the strength of the programming done before the competition started.

Team members build the models and use a computer program to make it run. At 13, team members are old pros with the computer.

"I like anything and everything to do with a computer," said Nathan Hayes, a seventh-grader at Turner. "I started using one when I was about 2, I guess."

Nathan and his fellow team members, Tylor Brison and Doug Robinson, spend about two hours after school three or four days each week tweaking their robot. In the competition, all robots are programmed to conquer the same course; creativity comes in with the size of the wheels and a few other design elements.

"We brainstorm what will work best," Nathan said.

As they waited for their team to be called to compete in the Penguin Grand Prix, the boys didn't worry about their competitors. Their primary concern was their own robot, and they had a few things to say about the stereotype of computer geeks.

"I heard about this one guy who got bullied at school and then he got to work one day and he was the boss of the guy who was always bullying him," Tylor said. "Guess what? He fired him! So the nerds get the good jobs."

Hoffman laughed. "Imagine all the people who thought Bill Gates was a nerd in school," he said. "It's the ultimate revenge."

As the boys talked, a loud "ohhhhhh" erupted from the crowd. A team from Canfield Village Middle School was watching as its robot slowly climbed a ramp, then stopped. Rules prohibit the team from touching the car, and the Canfield car pitched back and forth until the clock ran out.

"It happens sometimes," Doug said. "Not much you can do."

Those words proved prophetic. Just 10 minutes later, the Turner team's robot started strong, climbed the ramp steadily, turned two corners, then stopped dead.

Just before the car stopped, a buzz went through the crowd when a camera flashed. Immediately, an announcement: "Please do not use flash photography as it can interfere with the robots' programming."

Running out of time

Time ran out on the Turner team. Once the bell sounded, Nathan walked over and gently nudged the robot. It moved a foot or so, then stopped again.

The boys were philosophical. Their loss, they believed, was because of a weak battery, not the camera flash.

"Sometimes the computer sees that flash of light, and it wipes out the programming," Nathan said. "But I just think it was our battery."

Even though the Turner team didn't leave with a trophy, they had a good day. They enjoyed a day away from classes, they said, and they had fun just watching the other robots compete.

"It's definitely a beneficial thing," Hoffman said. " They've learned to be part of a team. They have a sense of pride and accomplishment. They have to be organized and set priorities."

Hoffman, who has worked with the Turner team for three years, said he wins too.

"These are smart, funny kids," he said. "They're fun to work with and they do a good job. I really enjoy it. I'm not really reliving my childhood because this wasn't around when I was growing up. I wish it had been."




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