Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TOP STORY >> ROBOTICS Rookie team inspires others

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville High School and LISA Academy North robotics teams returned with one award each from last weekend’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Arkansas Regional competition.

The accolades were unexpected, and so was the sports-like atmosphere with hundreds of spectators screaming for their favorites. The announcer even bantered with the crowd in the athletic center at Harding University in Searcy.

First-time competitor Magic Smoke, Jacksonville’s team, walked away with the Rookie Inspiration Award.

LISA’s team, The Jaguars — seasoned veterans of the event — earned a judges award for “putting their best foot forward” in aiding others.

LISA helped JHS start its team and, throughout the competition, lent a hand to another rookie team from Huntsville High School.

Magic Smoke’s adviser, JHS shop teacher Wayne Griffin, had hoped his team’s “A Christmas Story” themed robot would win the Creativity Award.

The robot was comprised of a plastic leg covered in a fishnet stocking. It was modeled after the lamp that was a prominent fixture of the classic film. Well-known phrases from the movie, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” and “Oh fudge! but I didn’t really say fudge,” were written on the robot’s metal bars. When it wasn’t on the field, the Jacksonville team added lace trimming and a lampshade to their creation to make it look like a window displaying the odd piece of d├ęcor.

Team members wore pink tutus, pink bunny ears and took turns wearing a large bunny suit — not exactly like, but reminiscent of the pink bunny suit the main character’s parents forced him to don in the movie.

Magic Smoke also wished for an advance to the world competition through the Rookie All-Star Award.

LISA had aimed even higher. They wanted to win it all and made it to the quarterfinals seeded fifth out of the 39 teams that competed.

Griffin said the sister team planned on asking Magic Smoke to join its three-team alliance after the qualification matches. If that had happened, the rookie team would have followed The Jaguars to the quarterfinals. But Griffin told LISA’s team to choose other teams so they would have a better shot at earning the title.

The adviser explained, “It’s disappointing not to make it…We told them not to pick us because we couldn’t help them. We would have been an average bot for them so we actually probably would have hindered their chances of beating the bigger teams. We told them to pick a better bot, a heavier bot, a more robust bot.”

Nonetheless, Griffin added, “We did exceptionally well.”

He voiced his pride later, calling it an accomplishment for JHS. “We’re not the power house of central Arkansas we used to be. We have nothing but a bad reputation. People are always badmouthing our school. We walk in here with a week and a half (of work) and win an award.”

The team finished the competition ranked in the 20s. Griffin said, “We just had bad luck keep falling on us.”

But he pointed out that his team’s robot was the only one that didn’t break down on the field.

The way the game is played is that six teams are selected, and they form two alliances comprised of three teams. Then the two alliances compete in a two-minute match. The goal was to score points by using the robots to pick up large medicine balls and throw them through goals.

The Jacksonville team, Griffin said, was ranked in the Top 10 at one point. Then its robot was paired with robots that broke down or teams that didn’t follow the strategy formulated before each match.

Magic Smoke won five of the 12 matches it played, including one match against an alliance that included the competition’s winner, Bomb Squad of Mountain Home. Bomb Squad was undefeated until that match, Griffin said.

Team member Erin Kometti said, “The point is, with teamwork, it all depends. But when you have ones that you go out there and one of them breaks instantly or you go out there with ones that can’t go out there because they’re broken, it kind of does make it hard on you because you can’t do every single job because you have robots coming up on you, trying to flip you, hitting you, doing anything to try to make you foul.”

But, she added, “I absolutely loved it. I think it was a lot of fun...For our first year, we did insanely well.”

There were more shocks and awes for the Magic Smoke team.

Lee Steht, who was tasked with meeting and greeting other teams, said he was surprised by “the aggressiveness of the other robots.”

Carmen Moody, who drove the robot during the matches, said she was amazed by how sturdy the Jacksonville robot was compared to those of teams that had attended the regional competition for years.

She also said she felt good about the team’s performance. “It was a good foundation we laid...We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of time. We did what we could,” Moody added.

“The level of the other robots in the competition” surprised Griffin. “Holy cow. But that comes with experience. Your parts carry over every year. So, each year, you have more and more things to work with. So teams that have been doing this for 19 years, like the Bomb Squad has, have unlimited parts, unlimited funds.”