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Big Army, Little Bot

Robot Champ
Robot Champ

UMKC robotics team spreads the word

A steady stream of 5th grade kids came through the door and scrambled for front row seats. All around the room, members of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s robotics team stood, some holding gadgets, gizmos and clusters of wire. What brought these disparate groups together? That’s easy – their mutual love of robots.

The UMKC robotics team is an all-volunteer army of programmers, tinkerers and all-around smart folks who love a challenge. They get no class credit, no pay and no perks – except for a blue polo sporting the team logo and what appeared to be an endless supply of chips and SlimJims.

The team reaches out to younger students with a similar bent. Last fall, a group came to the robotics lab from Mason Elementary School in the Blue Springs School District, part of an enrichment class called Stretch. As robotics team member Eddie Pogosov explained the challenges their robot would face at the 12-state regional competition, the students listened attentively and peppered the UMKC team with questions.

“No, they are not remote controlled,” Victor Skulavik II responded. “They are programmed to move. We turn them on and they’re on their own.”

Matthew Mohler responded with questions of his own.

“‘Where am I? Where do I need to go? How do I get there without hitting anything?’ These are the answers we have to find and program into our robot. We write the rules for the robot to follow by creating our own special software.”

The Mason students were still at a rudimentary programming and power source stage, but they could see and understand the more sophisticated steps. For the time being, they would concentrate on Lego Olympics, but they looked forward to tougher stuff.

At the annual college-level competition, this year’s little UMKC android traveled through an imaginary landscape of burnt-out forest, gathering soil samples without bumping into stumps and boulders or losing its balance. The samples tell naturalists whether the forest will regrow on its own or if it needs human intervention.

Sometimes the robotics team goes on the road. In January they went to Ft. Osage High School, where 400 students spent time learning electricity and circuits from the UMKC robotics students.

Debbie Dilks, advisor to the robotics team, praised the many UMKC robotics alumni who continue to participate after graduation.

“They are so loyal to the team. They stay connected, make donations and help find external support from companies and individuals,” she said.

Money is so tight that there are no previous year’s competitive robots still intact; the students cannibalize older models for the parts that are costly to replace.

Funding trickles in from a variety of sources. The team members are skilled presenters and score financial assistance from the Student Government Association. They also conduct fundraisers throughout the year – serving what they call “Cheap Lunch,” pushing popcorn and selling tickets to the ever-popular fish fry, for which Dilks and her husband supply the food and do the cooking.

“I appreciate Velda Robins and Selena Albert for what they do,” Debby Dilks added. “They help the robotics team above and beyond their assigned responsibilities.”

Albert is chapter advisor for another student group; but she and Robins, manager of building services, arrange student tours of the robotics lab. UMKC Electrical Engineering faculty Reza Derakhshani and Eddie Burris provide support as needed.

As the door closed on the Mason kids and the robotics lab grew quiet, Sarah Withee said, “One of the reasons I love robotics and First Lego League is because I get to play with the things that fascinated me as a child. I remember my dad opening up our Commodore 64 one day – my mind was blown by the circuits inside. Now I can build something similar with parts in the lab. I have programmed robots and made them do things. Can it get better than that?

“We’re showing the grade school kids that it’s possible for your childhood amusements to become your life’s work. We put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces today.”

 Photo by Sarah Withee.

 


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