County 4-H’ers explore robotics

BROOKVILLE — For 11 4-H members, Tuesday will be the most critical day of a six-week endeavor that began in January.

Last month, 11 4-H students from Jefferson and Clearfield counties began building a robot to compete in a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) — marking the first time 4-H members in the area became involved in this national project.

“It’s coming along,” team member Matt Vipond said. “We’re going to be going right up to the buzzer here, but I think we’ll make it.”

Tuesday, the team members must cease work on their robot, which they will take to a regional competition next month.

“It’s coming together,” Susan Alexander, Penn State Cooperative Extension educator, said. “We’ve got a robot that’s moving and doing things. It’s all working together.”

Alexander first heard about FRC last year and knew she wanted to bring the opportunity to Jefferson County 4-H members.

Thousands of teams across the nation take part in FRC, and because this is Jefferson County’s first try at it, Alexander is proud of how far her team has come.

She and her team received the kit Jan. 7, and after a week of brainstorming, began to build it.

The team’s robot is almost complete, and once finished, will have the capability to pick up and shoot a basketball.

All teams across the country receive the same kit, which includes, screws, bolts, electrical components, joy sticks, a netbook computer and basketballs. But what each individual team does with the kit is up to its discretion.

“Each team robot is going to look a little different because each team sees different things,” Alexander said.

March 8-10, the team will compete at the regional competition in Pittsburgh against more than 40 other teams.

The team will be judged for awards in design, creativity, innovation and culture-changing behavior.

If the team does well enough, it will move to the national level to compete in the FIRST Championship in St. Louis.

And Vipond, a junior at Brockway Area High School, thinks his team’s robot will be a contender.

“Our robot is going to be very competitive,” he said. “We’re trying to be optimistic.”

In addition to the 11 team members, FRC requires each team to be mentored by professional adults.

Matt Vipond’s father, Henry Vipond, is a retired electrical engineer who believes the team has already accomplished so much.

“I think it’s an overwhelming task that they’re working on,” he said. “Even if they weren’t successful in finishing the robot, they’ve already learned how to think about ideas and how to brainstorm ... that in itself is an accomplishment.”

Vipond calls it a “creativity building” activity.

“From my experience, when you think about things that are challenging, you create new abilities in yourself, and kids are able to do that even more,” he said.

Alexander considers the decision to take part in FRC beneficial to not only the 11 team members, but also to the entire 4-H program as a whole.
She said Jefferson County started at the top of the line, where building the robot is the last step.

But in the near future, Alexander plans to involve younger 4-H members at earlier stages, by first learning to build with Legos.

“Some of the younger kids said, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ so I think getting the kids more excited about science, technology, engineering and math is good,” she said. “And we’re going to do that. The overall 4-H program is going to grow from it.”

4-H members who are not interested in the robot-building aspect of the competition, can be involved in other ways.

FRC requires a team to write essays and design a Web page and promotional materials.

It’s also important for a team to show that it’s sustainable — that it will go on from year to year, and grow.

A majority of the team plans to come back next year.

“Some of us had interest in becoming engineers professionally, and it’s a good opportunity to design some parts and configure the parts and put them all together,” Matt Vipond said. “We had to design everything that’s on this robot, so it’s good practice for the future.”