Robots play ball

The purple team — one of seven teams competing in ProtoCamp this week at the Archuleta Engineering Center on the campus of Western Colorado Community College — works a vex robot built from blueprints at the beginning of the session. From left are Lance Whitesides, Conner Steven-Humpherys and Jake Christensen.

You always hear that the best defense is a good offense, but you might also hear, if you keep certain company, never to trust a robot.

So, the yellow team robot could do little but send the green foam balls back through the opening in the wall just as soon as the red team robot shoved them through. The onslaught was unrelenting and, by the end of three minutes, both robots were twitching and jerking with what seemed like fatigue.

And it was a wash, both teams ending the round with the same number of balls in their area that they’d started with.

Huddled around their robot, the three red team members scuttled back to a work bench in the Archuleta Engineering Center at Western Colorado Community College. Friday was the culmination of ProtoCamp, and robot pride was on the line.

In its sixth year, the camp is a weeklong, hands-on exploration of engineering, mechanics and robots for middle school students, said Bill McCracken, a machining technology instructor at the community college and the camp’s director.

“One of our goals is to get them interested in engineering and machining early,” McCracken said. “We encourage them to be as innovative as they can and to think outside the box.”

The camp began with building a robot from blueprints, so participants could learn about the various elements of technology, machining and engineering involved — learn the terms and tools and how to use them. Then, the 21 campers were divided into teams of three and charged with designing and building robots capable of picking up small foam soccer and footballs and getting them over a low wall into the opposing robot’s area.

The seven robots crafted by the seven teams were similar in their square shape and the thin metal strips used to build them, but that’s where the similarities ended.

The red team — comprised of Stephanie Morrall, 13, Dylan Kessler, 12, and Bryce Copeland, 11 — created a ball-grabbing mechanism similar to an earwig’s pincers, except with red Solo cups that snapped together.

Raleigh Carlton’s team built a wide scoop on the end of a lifting arm, wide enough to scoop up a football and drop it over the wall.

In the final competition, two teams faced off with their robots on opposite sides of an enclosure with a low wall down the center. Each team had 12 small green foam balls and six orange foam footballs to get onto the other team’s side, with points awarded for how many balls they got over at the end of three minutes.

“The kids learn every aspect of this, from learning the materials to designing and building the robots to controlling them and troubleshooting when something goes wrong,” McCracken explained.

And when things went right, orange footballs got flung over low walls and small metal robots twirled with glory.


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