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Those robots coming out of WR school are laying waste to their competition

Melissa Zeuner
Melissa Zeuner

Melissa Zeuner of Warner Robins Middle School talks about the school’s award-winning robotics teams and what competion is like at .FIRST Lego League tournaments.

Q: Your students make robots?

A: They do, and they make them well enough to win competitions.

Q: What have they won?

A: We have two different teams at Warner Robins Middle and both have done well in FIRST Lego League robotics tournaments regionally and at state.

Q: What is FIRST Lego League?

A: Part of a program promoting STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — through designing, programming and building robots with Lego kits to meet preassigned challenges and tasks. The FIRST Lego League is for our sixth- through eighth-grade students and there are other ones for other ages. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

Q: What have you won?

A: Like I said, we have the two teams with one sponsored by Starbase Robins, an educational program based at the Museum of Aviation, and the other sponsored through funds our tech club raised. Starbase sponsors a team at six different Houston County middle schools. We had too many students for just one team so we had to create a second. That’s great, isn’t it? But we had to raise extra money for supplies and the competitions. Both did well enough in our local completion in Byron to advance to what’s called a super-regional hosted at the Museum of Aviation. At Byron, each of our teams got first on the robot table and we got tournament championships. At the super-regional, we placed second and third on the robot table out of 36 teams. We also took a core value award.

Q: How are these things set up? What do these awards signify?

A: You’re judged in several areas. There’s the robot table, which is the same for every team with its course and challenges. It reflects the year’s theme which this year was “Into Orbit” and had to do with long-term spaceflight or colonization. There are more than a dozen potential challenges and the team has to pick a certain number to perform and then design, program and build their robot to do it by itself. It’s not remote control, it has to be built and programmed by the students to run autonomously. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Q: What are the robots like? Little men?

A: No, they’re usually relatively square, like small, compact vehicles with motors, a brain, sensors, all kinds of potential attachments to help accomplish tasks — that sort of thing.

Q: Other judging areas?

A: They create a report with a presentation done before judges based on the theme. They have to identify a related problem and come up with an innovative solution. In another part, they have to explain why they designed their robot as they did and another area, an important one, is core values.

Q: What is that?

A: It has to do with teamwork and handling work and the problems and frustrations that arise in a courteous, professional manner. It has to do with how they relate to one another and other teams whether they’re winning or losing. It has to do with everybody on the team getting a chance to be heard and take part even if someone’s idea doesn’t win out. That’s one of the great things about the program, students may or may not end up as engineers but skills like these are used in every profession and help determine how successful you’ll be. You can always use teamwork and communications skills, problem-solving skills and being able to work things out.

Q: How did you do in state competition?

A: We didn’t get a trophy but one of our teams did win first at the robot table and we won a core value award for inspiration and another for gracious professionalism.

Q: How many students were involved — and what were the team names?

A: Seventeen. We started out with a few more, but because some moved and various things we ended up with a combined group of 17. Team names are the Nitro Nerds and Cyber Squad and together they brought home 10 trophies overall. That’s a lot. I’m very proud of them not just for the trophies but for their commitment and hard work. I teach engineering and technology connections classes so most all of our students get some robotics in those classes. Add to that our team members are among students involved in a Starbase 2.0 after-school science and technology mentoring program one day a week then add another afternoon the actual robotics afterschool team meetings. Plus, there are quite a few Saturday mornings involved.

Q: It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?

A: They were dedicated. I’ve been doing the competitions for six years and for two years another teacher, Jamie Nash, has been in on it. But it’s not all us. The students do the real work and decision making, but we also depend on parents and volunteer mentors, some who are Robins Air Force Base engineers. We have a really dedicated engineer working with the kids now and her dedication and knowledge have made such a difference. And it’s great for students to see people really use this stuff out there in the world and it’s not just teachers talking about it in the classroom.

Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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