Dream Machine

Dream Machine
Posted Feb 24th, 2022

Robotics really is a team sport, and one of the region’s best examples is the Pike County Schools robotics team, which is coming off another outstanding competition season representing the PCS STEM Academy.

That group won the BEST Robotics competition at Troy University last October and advanced to the regional competition in Auburn in early December.

It was the second consecutive year that Pike County Schools placed first overall in the Troy hub — and the second year students and teachers were dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

While the actual competition and robot performances were held in person, crucial aspects such as presenting an engineering notebook and marketing the robot were done virtually. “That adds another level of difficulty, because it’s hard to read an audience over Zoom or Teams,” Pike County Schools STEM Academy teacher Kim Sellers says. “It’s harder to present.”

The competition’s theme was “Demolition and Safety,” meaning each school had to design a robot capable of completing various assignments in the area of demolition.

“Troy University gives us a kit of plywood, PVC, some motors and a few other things,” Sellers says. “They give you the theme and tell you to go forth and build.”

More than nuts and bolts

Designing, programming and building the robot are challenges enough, but the competition also includes a marketing element where teams have to “sell” their product to judges and investors.

“They have to think through what the cost of the robot would be, how do they handle customer service for it if something malfunctions and answer professional development questions. So if a company bought it, you have to train that company’s employees to use it,” Sellers says. “It’s a wide variety of marketing.”

Pike County High School ninth grader Zane Rigdon had several roles for this year’s competition. He helped build the robot — wood and sanding primarily, he says — but he was also responsible for drawing the dozens of ever-changing ideas on paper.

“It was very stressful,” Zane says. “We had tons of ideas for the base of the robot — if it should have like a claw or an arm. How many wheels should it have, two or four? We thought about making it like a dump truck. Really, almost all of those ideas ended up getting scrapped.

“We had, like, six ideas for the PVC alone. Where do the motors go? It changed a lot the entire time. It changed from Troy to Auburn. It kept changing. We even made changes at both competitions.”

Each change would affect other parts of the team. There was a group responsible for documenting each change and why it was being made. The sales and marketing units needed to know about those changes, too.

Katelyn Davis, a ninth grader at Goshen High, has been in the STEM Academy since the sixth grade. She recalls as a seventh grader being pressed into duty on the day of the competition as the lead presenter to the investors.

“I had to make it up on the spot,” Katelyn says, wincing as she recalls the moment.

And yet, she did it. She kept her poise. This year, Katelyn was a veteran on the marketing team, and there were many new faces throughout the program.

“This year, most students were brand new. They had never done the competition before,” she says. “Benjamin Taylor, Sam Bozeman and Bryant Brooks had done it before and were on the driving team. I had to figure out everything for marketing. We had a mentor, a junior, Cane Merrill. They won first place the last time they did it, my seventh-grade year.”

A smart investment

Sellers says the competition is primarily for grades nine through 12.

“We were mostly ninth graders,” she says. “We worked on it in ninth-grade class time. The older kids would come back and meet a couple days a week. They know what worked in the past, but the ninth graders wanted to try their own ideas.

“They had to find that happy medium,” Sellers says. “Kids have to learn compassion and communication. We kind of preach the four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. That’s ingrained in them through STEM.”

This year’s team earned a first place at Troy University for web page design and garnered six second-place awards for critical robot design, robot performance, exhibit and informal interview, the BEST Award, marketing presentation and engineering notebook.

Sellers says South Alabama Electric Cooperative has been a valued partner in its support of the Robotics program at the Pike County Schools STEM Academy.

“SAEC has been instrumental in the success this year,” the teacher says. “They’ve given us money, time, even tools. Since we’re given kind of raw materials, we have to form everything. They have donated money to help us purchase tools that were necessary. That saves us time in building. We don’t have to go out and find someone to cut it for us or let us use their machines. They have also trusted us to get the right things we know our students need.

“Also, I didn’t want students having to worry about finding food somewhere,” Sellers says. “SAEC donated money and I ordered box lunches both days for our students. So they’re not just investing in the school and the materials the school uses, but investing in our students, too.”