RICHARDSON: That’s what I’m talkin’ about

April 6, 2014 

We went to a car show, and a robotics competition broke out.

Let me explain. My wife and I, grandson Paul and friend Jonathon traveled to Atlanta’s World Congress Center to see the Atlanta International Car Show last weekend. You can only look at cars, like a $397,000 Lanborghini Aventador or the $375,000 Lexus LFA, for so long. Not quite in my price range. I was more into the new 2015 Ford Mustang, the F-150 and the new look of the 2015 Ford Expedition. The SUV has an instrument panel that looks like something you’d see on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The new Sting Ray was there, too. So was the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe. It has 556 ponies. I like raw horsepower.

The World Congress Center is a huge complex, and as we were leaving the car show, I saw a sign by one of the escalators that read: “Georgia FIRST Robotics Regional Competition.” Having a curious mind and wanting Paul and Jonathon to open their eyes to something other than camshafts and turbochargers, we followed the signs.

We heard the heart-thumping music from outside the arena. It looked and felt more like a pro wrestling show than what I would have imagined a robotics competition would look and feel like. There were bleachers on both sides of the court filled with kids, parents and technical advisers, a pit area, `a la NASCAR. These teams, from as far away as Mexico, all had robots built to certain specifications and limited to 120 pounds. The machines were able to streak back and forth on the court passing and shooting large balls (they look like gym balls but are much lighter) through goals. While I understand 0-60 times and skid pad numbers, robotics competition scoring system has me stumped.

Lo and behold, RoboBibb, a team made up of Central, Howard, Hutchings, Northeast, Rutland and Westside high school students, was there in the midst of battle. Of the 64 teams starting the competition, RoboBibb was in the Final Four.

Bibb County’s team wasn’t as experienced as many of the others. One team had been competing in robotics competitions since 1995. This was RoboBibb’s first rodeo.

The 30-member RoboBibb team had put in a lot of hard work and long hours -- after school and on weekends -- and they weren’t alone. Parents were behind them, Johnny James and Monya Rutland, to mention a few. Coaches Joe Finkelstein and Chuck and Michelle Hammock were there, too. T. Anthony Choi, Ph.D., from Mercer was behind them with a summer robotics camp that got them started. Aaron Bonilla, who was on his high school’s robotics team in Wisconsin and now works in Warner Robins, was a mentor, along with Spencer Penley, Art Hanner and Brandon Borah, engineering students at Mercer. Ed Powell, from mechanical and electrical engineering firm Andrews, Hammock and Powell, pushed the team forward as did the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Monica Smith, and the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce with Mike Dyer and Pat Topping. There were a host of other sponsors from Theresa Robinson at Georgia Power to Gene Dunwody Jr., at Dunwody/Beeland Architects.

The RoboBibb team is what Bibb County looks like -- male, female, black, white, brown and everything in between. While they attended separate schools, they became a team in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This competition is too fast-paced and precise for teenage angst.

Did they go into this competition just happy to be there, knowing they were rookies and unable to match the more experienced teams, one sponsored by Google? No. RoboBibb is heading to St. Louis to the 2014 Robotics Championship. The team received the Highest Seeded Rookie Team Award and the Rookie All-Star Award and a place at the championships April 23-26.

Gone should be the notion that Bibb County students seek mediocrity before they strive for excellence. One of the team members already has received acceptance letters from MIT, Georgia Tech and Cornell.

The RoboBibb team’s accomplishment was compared to the Mercer University Bears’ showing at the Big Dance. These kids will go on to college and one day, at a showroom near you, might sit the handiwork of one or more of these students. And it all started in Bibb County. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet@crichard1020.

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