MANCHESTER – Four township middle school students seemingly accomplished the impossible with their recent win of the Ocean County College Tech Prep Virtual Robotic Race.
Designing and building a robot via Zoom during a pandemic isn’t easy, but the Middle School team took first place in the middle school division and their coach, Maura Simister, was named Middle School Robotic Coach of the Year.
The team included 7th graders Gabe Calafati, who served as captain, Sean Ascione, Marcos Gaspar and 6th grader Justin Deleon who accomplished the specified task of making their robot follow a black line while carrying a ball.
They described their process and struggles in a presentation board; and submitted videos of their coding and design process as well as video of the robot in action.
Neil Schiller, Engineering Program Chair at Ocean County College, congratulated the team saying Simister was chosen as coach of the year for the extreme lengths she went to in order to allow her students to compete in a remote and mixed learning environment.
“Your efforts included picking up, sanitizing the robot parts, and moving them from one student to another, in addition to coaching your teams. Your willingness to do this demonstrates your dedication to your students, as well as your ability as a coach,” Schiller said.
The objective of the 2020 TechPrep competition is to program a robot to perform different tasks. The robot must follow a black line while carrying a ball to complete the full segment.
This was a daring move because it was a struggle to get parts from the school. One challenge the team had to face last year was getting the code so they put more time towards that this year.
The students also faced many communication problems because of the pandemic and couldn’t meet, talk, or build in person. To overcome this, they had to host Zoom meetings after school.
They each realized they must use some type of claw or forklift mechanism to carry the ball. They searched for different designs they could build with the materials they had.
There were many different choices discovered. Most of these options were found by watching tutorials and YouTube videos. “We used these as inspiration towards our design. You can’t forget about the most important part! The wheels! We’d need a stable way to move around because of the lifting mechanism,” the team’s captain said.
He added, “our group found many different solutions to our problem. We could go with a claw approach where the robot would scoop up the ball or a lift idea where the robot would scoop under and pick up. Those were the two main designs we thought of.”
The team chose for their robot to have a lift at the front since a scoop or claw would be too complex. The lift was just two easy motions. “We decided to use track for the wheels for stable driving. Soon we would start building our amazing design,” Gabe added.
For the lifting mechanism, “we used a special type of motor that is different than the one used for the wheels. When spun, it activates a gear that will allow it to lift up and down. For the wheels we used a tank like tire to connect the two wheels on each side. This allowed us to only use two motors as the back wheel will now rely on the front wheel to move since they are attached,” Gabe said.
He added, “we had to go through many series of testing to get a functionable robot. The structure of the robot didn’t need much testing. It was the code we needed to see. We had to use our spare time to test the robot and its code. We were using one of his codes but it didn’t seem to work. On Zoom we watched the robot stop moving and working.”
The students talked over Zoom about making new codes and solutions. “We told Justin he’d need to make a new code from scratch. He started making a new code slowly but surely the robot started working, just in time before the competition,” Gabe added.
The team had to do a few finishing touches of the robot and had to film the robot in action. Sean was in charge of documenting the presentation and sending it to their coach. They used IMovie on IPhone to edit the video.