St. Dominic’s robotics team heads to California for international competition

“Kevin Briggs,” the LEGO-built robot designed and programmed by St. Dominic School’s robotics team, maneuvers around its farm-like playing field to corral pigs, milk cows, snatch cameras off the back of seals and extract honey from a hive.

So adept is Kevin at performing these and other animal-themed missions within a time constraint of just 2 1/2 minutes, the robot’s young makers have qualified to compete in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Open Championship in Carlsbad, California, May 19-21. The international field will pit Kevin against 80 robots from around the world.

To earn that spot, St. Dominic’s 10-member team placed first overall – garnering the “Champions Award” – in a field of 11 area teams in its age division of grades 4-8 at a November contest at Ben Franklin High School.

At the subsequent state competition at Holy Cross School in December, St. Dominic competed against 60 teams and earned the prestigious “Robot Programming Award,” along with a bid to attend one of the FLL’s “open” championships. The team opted to attend this month’s contest in California.

The robot’s unusual name – Kevin Briggs – hints at one of the reasons for its success. Briggs is the creator of a YouTube series of videos that probed the use of proportional control in robotic programming.

“It’s an advanced programming technique,” said Annette Oertling, the team’s mentor, explaining how her students figured out, after watching Briggs’ videos, how to make their robot accelerate in equal increments over time, thereby making it less likely to wipe out.

For example, if the robot went from zero to 100-percent power instantly, a LEGO “shark” inside its tank would fall over while being moved – before reaching its destination – and the team would lose 20 points. A slower, more uniform acceleration keeps things running more smoothly, Oertling said.

“That was a more advanced level of programming than the judges were used to seeing,” she said.

Another compulsory part of the robotics competition challenged the student engineers to identify a problem that occurs when humans and animals interact and then create a solution to that problem. Upon learning that 200 Americans die each year when their cars collide with deer, the

St. Dominic students proposed that motion sensors be installed at all deer crossings. If movement is detected, the sensors would alert an app in the driver’s car.

St. Dominic’s robotics team is composed of seventh graders Kyle Borde, Monica Cabes, James Clark, Nicholas Ferina, Chase Lormand and Annabel Schaeffer; sixth graders Caroline Clark and Collin Lormand; and fifth graders Claire Cannella and Rachel Clark. In addition to its mentor, Oertling, the team is coached by Jessica Guastella, a St. Dominic pre-K teacher.

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