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'Penngineers' preparing robotics for competition

| Friday, Dec. 3, 2010

Though the "Penngineers" have been playing with Lego bricks since September, their project involves much more than following a playset pattern.

The 11 teammates -- all Penn-Trafford area students -- built a robot from the colored bricks and will be one of 72 teams competing Saturday in the First Lego League robotics competition in Pittsburgh.

"It's really amazing to see them work through all this," said Doug Peters, who works in the robotics field and is coaching the team. "They're coming up with the mechanical design and figuring out how to make it work on their own."

The team includes eight students from Harrison Park Elementary -- Peters' son, Jared, and Josh and Jordan Speigel, Dominic DeLuca, Nikolas and Dennis Dupree, Ryan Hilty, and Noah Schlessinger -- Billy Kerr of Penn Middle School; Josh Kerr of McCullough Elementary; and Matt Bracken of Mother of Sorrows School.

The competition is sponsored by First Robotics and will be held in the National Robotics Engineering Center. This year's "The Body Forward" theme requires students to focus on biomedical engineering.

To compete, the boys must build a Lego brick-based robot capable of completing tasks, such as turning, traversing an obstacle or moving an object.

Peters said the robots can include up to three motors and various sensors, which work together through a computer program the students design.

"At first I had to show them how to do a lot of things, but now they decide when to change something and they just jump on the computer and go," he said. "I would have loved to do this when I was a kid."

Peters' wife, Cherie, said the team works on the project once or twice a week and that it definitely has been a challenge.

"At times, they've been frustrated because with programming, there's little kinks to work out," Cherie Peters said. "The program has to be precise, and it takes a long time to measure and calculate how many degrees the robot has to turn."

But Patricia DePra, regional director for First Robotics, said that's part of the intended learning experience.

"We always want to know what the students learned from it," DePra said. "They're problem solving and designing within a context. Sometimes I think they're learning things without even realizing they're learning things."

DePra said teamwork is a key component of the competition and that it's not uncommon to see different teams helping each other during the competition.

The team has the chance to win awards for teamwork, robot design, robot performance and the overall project. The winning teams can compete in the national competition in the spring.

Peters said even if the team doesn't win, the experience has been worth it, and some of the boys already are considering competing next year.

"They've learned a whole lot about technology, and I don't think they're intimidated anymore," Peters said. "Programming isn't a black art to them anymore. They've really gotten into it."

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