By Kathi Bliss
Putting a new spin (quite literally) on the old idea of academic clubs, a group of Lockhart High School students is going where no LHS students have gone before – straight to the top of the heap in regional performance in programming, engineering and mechanics.
Though they officially fall under the guidance of ML Cisneros Freshman Campus STEM teacher Matt Buehner, the Lockhart High School Robotics Club, in practice, generally take their cues from one another, freely sharing their ideas, strengths and specialized knowledge to build, repair and improve a robot that, so far this year, has seen competition – and victory – against older, more experienced, and by all accounts wealthier teams from across the region.
“One of the great things about the competitions that we’ve been to is that the other schools, the teams that have done this before, are really very nice and helpful, and willing to help us out with making sure we have everything we need to have to compete,” said Reagan Smith, one of two sophomores on the team, who along with teammate Sean Starks takes on responsibility for coding the programming for the team’s robot, affectionately named for their hometown.
The 13.13.Q_B0t (BBQ Bot), is not the fanciest piece of equipment on the floor. It’s not the most expensive, and it’s not the most useful. But what it does, it does well.
“It’s a little more than a ‘push bot’” said Charles Francis. “In the actual game, pushing the button is about all we can do. But after we get those points from pushing the buttons and lighting the beacons, we can defend our alliance partners so they can do some of the more fancy stuff.”
That “fancy stuff” includes lifting exercise balls in the air, pushing other balls up a ramp, and balancing items in a basket. Without the benefit of a mechanical arm, the BBQ Bot can’t do that. However, with its sturdy base and speed, Lockhart’s team can help keep “enemy” bots from interfering with their allies’ collecting points.
In each competition, teams from different schools are paired in “alliances,” and pitted against rival alliances, with the purpose of collecting the most possible points by lifting balls and lighting beacons.
“We can’t do the dramatic stuff, but we always play for the alliance,” Starks said.
A programmer since the age of 10, Starks seems to emerge as the team’s mouthpiece, with a specialized knowledge of the software capabilities that the robot brings.
“Some of the code, you can download and then modify to best serve your machine,” he said. “And sometimes, I just write the code and load it to the machine.”
The skill served the team well during their competition over the weekend, as Buehner noted Starks was able to program a “boost mode” that gave the BBQ Bot additional speed, and the edge the team needed to take fourth place out of 13 teams in the league.
After two competitions, the 13.13.Q_B0tZ are in second place in the league, with one final competition on Jan. 7 before the League Championships on Jan. 21.
This is the inaugural year for the LHS Robotics Club to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge, a series of robotics “games” that is beginning to gain traction in schools across the state – this year, comprising 52 teams in the Austin League alone.
Indeed, it is the first year such a club has existed at LHS.
While all of the participants are in engineering classes, and each has unique experience in modeling, programming, engineering or electronics, the team is experiencing the concerns that often plague start-ups: lagging technology, lack of equipment, and the lack of advance fundraising.
“The machine itself cost us $1,600,” Buehner said. “And then you add in the expenses for additional parts, software, the competition registrations. We find ourselves at this stage of the game, especially since we’ve introduced the defensive strategy, hoping that something doesn’t get broken that we don’t have the time or the funding to replace.”
It’s a risk, Jeffrey Stofle said, that every team takes, but some are better equipped to handle.
“We’re competing against rich schools, and we know that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be just as good as they are. We just have to be able to think ahead, see what might go wrong, and how we can fix something if it goes wrong between rounds.”
So far, the strategy has served them well. With some of the members of the team focusing on building, others on programming, and yet others on replicating the gaming arena, each member of the team proves invaluable, as ideas fly around their circle as quickly as they can pass bags of pretzels and boxes of Goldfish.
Indeed, as the team sat for this interview, they joked about a “turbo” button, and how that might help them in the upcoming competition.
Less than 36 hours later, the team had created the “speed boost.”
Only time will tell how high their next idea might take them.