I step in front of the door to the IEEE competition, tugging my team polo to smooth out any wrinkles, then walk into the auditorium, a wall of windows filling the domed space with light.
Years of a growing desire to share my passion for robotics with other young students has boiled down to the cardboard box on one of the side tables, with a four pound robot hidden inside. As I approach I see Anna and Fiona, the two students Emily and I have been teaching over the past several weeks. Together we open the box and study Snackatron. Despite its name this robot is no snack, but is instead the snacker. With a metal wedge that looks like it belongs in Battlebots instead of a friendly sumo competition, this robot’s sharp metal protrusion can push under others with deft speed, hurling them from the competitive arena.
Every year Penn State hosts two levels of competition at the IEEE event. One is for young children to build LEGO robots to push a jars of coins out of an arena. In the high-school division, robots face off on a small white platform and work to push their opponents over a black line and out of the arena.This year Center County 4-H Robotics mentored six separate teams of two students, and eight high-school mentors work together to teach twelve middle-schoolers how to build small four pound robots that competed in the high-school division. Emily and I mentored two of these students, helping them to construct their robot over approximately two weeks of build meetings.
Throughout competition day Emily and I try our best to help Fiona and Anna in their efforts to compete, guiding them and offering suggestions. Yet the most challenging part for me is standing back. I remember being in seventh grade, feeling annoyed at adults who thought I couldn’t manage myself. I help Anna and Fiona make their Power Point for judges, guiding them with leading questions but letting them do most of the work. Emily and I let Anna and Fiona go up by themselves to get their robot inspected, holding our breath while one of the judges dubiously poked at what looked like the top of a giant knife (our robot’s wedge), then said “eh it’s not that sharp.” We let Fiona and Anna speak for themselves.
Fiona and Anna’s robot is glorious. In counterpoint to the archetypal portrayal of young girls, their robot is efficient, dangerously funny, and vicious. Throughout the day they advance round after round, and while they are eventually knocked out in the semi-finals, their performance is a testament to the many hours they spent over the past two weeks building their robot.
IEEE is different from most of the events our robotics team does. It lacks the frantic pressure associated with the FIRST Robotics build season. Instead it is a friendly competition between club members. However it offers a unique opportunity for the high-schoolers in our club to gain experience mentoring younger students. I have learned the value (and difficulty) of stepping back and allowing those I am teaching to take the lead. I hope Anna and Fiona see themselves as capable designers and creators, and will pursue STEM in their continued education. They both have an incredible talent for it. Maybe someday, we will even see them on the Centre County 4-H FIRST Robotics Team!
To the Penn State students who took the time to organize this event and Ford Motors for sponsoring the event, thank you, your efforts are deeply appreciated. Congratulations to our club member Tate Geiger on winning the competition and to Emma and Abby on winning the robot design award.
By Mary Davis, CC4H Robotics Class of 2018