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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Rushe Middle School hosts student robotics competition today

LAND O' LAKES - So close. Taylor Nguyen, Abdallah Mbowe and Jacob Goodloe watched intently as the robot wheeled across the table, angled to the right, came to a halt and tried to lift a "weight" built from Legos. The robot positioned itself a smidgen too short. Its arm swung up tantalizingly close to the target, but just missed. Undaunted, Taylor, 12, and Abdallah and Jacob, both 11, headed back to the computer in their Rushe Middle School classroom to tweak the program that told the robot how far to travel, when to turn, when to stop and when to lift.
The pressure is mounting, though, because the deadline is approaching. This morning, the robot needs to be ready to compete in "Robots at Rushe," a Florida First Lego League Tournament expected to draw 16 robotic teams to Rushe Middle, at 18654 Mentmore Blvd. The robots, built from Legos, navigate across a table, handling challenges that involve props also built from Legos. Other Pasco schools represented in the tournament include Bayonet Point Middle, Chasco Middle, Crews Lake Middle, Dr. John Long Middle and Pasco Middle. The competition, which begins at 9 a.m. in the cafeteria and should conclude by about 5 p.m., is open to the public. "You are going to see some kids coming who build some crazy robots," technology teacher Ric Rieffer told his students during a practice session after school Thursday. The robots face a mission called "Senior Solutions," designed to mimic activities senior citizens might encounter in daily living. The 14 challenges include repairing a broken chair and returning it to its table, turning off a stove, bowling and placing a plant in its correct spot. The robot has a mere 21/2 minutes to complete as many tasks as possible. Teams earn or lose points based on the robot's performance. Rushe will have two teams at the competition. A team can have up to 10 members who help with the computer programs and snap together Legos to create the robot and the challenges it faces. Some team members perform a skit that involves coming up with a solution to a problem related to the competition theme. Just two team members can man the table when the robot springs into action at the competition, though. Rieffer serves as team coach, but competition rules limit how much he can help the students in their preparation because it is supposed to be a student-focused event. If the students encounter a problem, Rieffer asks them questions to try to nudge them toward their own solution, rather than spelling one out for them. For the students, robotics is lots of work and lots of fun. "I love robotics," said Paul Mangone, 13, an eighth-grader. "I want to be an engineer. I can probably build things that will help the Army." Jalon Pittman, 11, a sixth-grader, said that a year ago he wouldn't have imagined that he could help program a robot to carry out specific tasks. "What's the amazing thing about this is the technology and how we are able to move our robot like we want it," Jalon said. Of course, creating the instructions for the robot involves a bit of trial and error, as Abdallah, Taylor and Jacob found out. The students continually tweaked their computer program and downloaded revised instructions to the robot. The robot would travel too far. The students would tweak. Then the robot would stop or turn too soon. The students tweaked again. "We have to go through multiple trials to see if it works," Jalon said. Today they'll learn whether they tweaked enough.

rblair@tampatrib.com (813) 371-1853 Twitter: @RBlairTBO
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