Bibb County robotics team advances to nationals

Bibb County robotics team advances to nationals

jmink@macon.comApril 3, 2014 

Jocelyn James is still reliving one of the most intense competitions she has ever witnessed.

The stands were filled with shouting spectators, sitting on the edge of their seats. In the middle of the action was a contraption James helped create: a tall, white, webbed device that resembles something from a science fiction film.

“It was almost like being at a football game,” said James, 17, a junior at Westside High School.

The competition was a regional robotics challenge, pitting teams and their creations against one another to try to perform mechanical feats. Now, Team RoboBibb, a group representing the Bibb County school system, is on its way to a national robotics competition in St. Louis.

The trip costs money, of course, and the team is trying to raise funds to get to nationals and continue the budding program in Bibb County.

“We want to be that team in 10 years that’s called to mentor teams across the state,” Joe Finkelstein, lead adviser of Team RoboBibb and a Howard High School teacher, said Thursday.

The young team traces its roots to about a year ago, when officials approached Finkelstein about leading a districtwide robotics team. Around that time, one of Finkelstein’s students also proposed starting a team. Jeremiah Smith -- a Howard High School senior who has been accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and the Georgia Institute of Technology -- was on a robotics team as a freshman, but he watched that team fizzle as students graduated.

Last year, he wanted to revive the team, but it wasn’t going to be easy. With Finkelstein on board, the initial task was to rally the student body. It quickly became clear that this would be a district effort. Team RoboBibb now is made up of students from Central, Howard, Hutchings Career Center, Northeast, Rutland and Westside high schools.

Then, the meetings started. Smith recalls “hundreds of hours” of meetings. At one point, the team was meeting every day for two weeks. The team decided to enter competitions and began learning to design machines, use advanced tools, fix mechanical problems and, basically, bring a bundle of metal to life.

“When I was first invited into it, I thought, ‘Robots, that’s for nerds,’ ” said Deanndra Dixon, 17, a Howard High senior. “Then I got to use a saw my first day, and it’s been life changing.”

And there were plenty of challenges when preparing for the recent regional competition in Atlanta. One such obstacle was the maximum weight of the robot. At first, Bibb County’s robot was 17 pounds overweight, so students started making drastic tweaks.

“We started cutting holes in the aluminum” to take off some weight, Smith said. “That was another step in problem solving.”

Soon, the team was ready for the regional competition. The robots were tasked with moving a ball around the small arena, picking it up and throwing it. In the end, Team RoboBibb not only snagged the Rookie All-Star Award, but also the Highest Seeded Rookie Team Award, landing them a spot in the national competition, which is April 23-26.

“I’ve only experienced that feeling once or twice in my life” Finkelstein said of earning a spot in a national competition.

All teams must ship a part of their robot to the competition in advance, and half of RoboBibb’s robot sat in a bag Thursday, ready to be shipped to St. Louis. Now the team, with the help of the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is working to generate about $18,000 for the trip.

The school district will help out, Finkelstein said, and the team is counting on funding from grants and sponsorships. It landed an $8,000 grant, sponsored by several companies, when the team was preparing for the regional competition.

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The team not only needs funds for the championship, but it also is garnering sponsors as it builds the local robotics program. The goal is to expand its reach in the school community and eventually involve middle school students, Finkelstein said.

“What an opportunity to get these kids prepared to be successful scientists, engineers ... out in the real world,” he said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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