High School Students Challenged to Build Robots
November 17, 2008
It sounds like a project for NASA but it's actually a challenge that has been extended to London area high school students.
This is the fourth year Fanshawe College electronics Professor Jim Blokker has challenged high school students to compete for what he calls the Next X Prize. To win, they must create a team name and logo, submit a robot design proposal, demonstrate navigation capability and, finally, pit their robot against others to complete a series of tasks on a course designed by Blokker.
Blokker started the competition as a way to interest high school students in the electronic programs offered at Fanshawe and it has worked. Some students involved in the robotics competition have chosen to study at Fanshawe.
Last year, when the objective was to retrieve lunar rocks from the crater, 10 schools initially showed an interest in the competition but only three made it to the final event in June when their robots had to complete the challenge.
"This year," Blokker said, "I decided to go with the lunar idea again because some high schools spent a lot of time and money building a crater (for last year's competition), so we thought we'd stay with the crater."
Last year, a group of Grade 12 students from Catholic Central High School took the Next X Prize. Second place went to St. Thomas Aquinas Grade 10 students. A team from A. B. Lucas Secondary School couldn't get their robot to function on the day of the competition.
"The robot has to navigate by itself," Blokker explains. "Once you turn it on, there's no outside control. It has to be programmed to react to what it finds out there and do the whole task by itself." He said teams are judged on the time it takes to complete the task and the efficiency with which the robot performs the task.
Interest in the competition is high again this year, Blokker said. He said Lucas has 40 students who want to compete, meaning there could be a number of teams from that school alone.
The cost for a robot is a modest $40 based on a kit that is available on line, although some schools build their robots from scratch or using logo platforms. Robots built so far have been created for under $100.
Blokker said the lighter the platform the better. The winning CCH entry used a light wood chassis, he said. The base of the robot must fit inside an 8-inch by 8-inch square. The crater is six inches deep and the box in which the crater sits is 4-feet by 4-feet.
To get the ball rolling and to help with the projects, Blokker visits schools that are entering the competition.
"I usually go once at the beginning and demonstrate a robot for them, the $40 kit. They are not restricted to it, but it is an excellent starting point." The kit includes a micro controller that contains the program, two electric motors and a double gear box. Steering is achieved by varying the speed of the wheels or reversing one while the other goes forward.
Usually, Blokker said, there will be one or two teachers on staff who are interested in robotics and they help students who enter the competition. "I've got the name of a physics teacher or computer science teacher at each school and I ask them to get involved or pass the information along to a teacher who might be interested in this project."
Ironically, the first year of the contest Blokker's current boss coached the winning team of students from St. Thomas Aquinas High School. John Makaran, now the chair of Manufacturing Sciences at Fanshawe, was an engineer working for Siemens when he coached that first winning team. Their task was to simply follow a line.
Makaran said Fanshawe supports Blokker's efforts with money for prizes and other supports. Last year's Next X Prize was a remote controlled helicopter for each student.
To make sure the robotic challenge is reasonable, Blokker builds a robot over the summer to complete the task he sets for the students. Blokker and his son, James, also help young people attending Y Camp build robots during the summer. The Blokkers, both Fanshawe teachers, spend a week building robots with groups aged 9 to 11 and groups 12 to 14.