2014-05-09 / Community

Robo Expo rolls into the high school

By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


Harrison Vosburgh, left, battles Pip Butterfield in Sumo Robot, one of the activities on display at the Robo Expo held Sunday at Kennebunk High School. The expo displayed the school’s new equipment and provided demonstrations. A combined grant of nearly $16,000 from the Perloff Family Foundation and the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks helped purchase 20 robot kits for the new robotics class at the high school. 
(Alex Acquisto photo) Harrison Vosburgh, left, battles Pip Butterfield in Sumo Robot, one of the activities on display at the Robo Expo held Sunday at Kennebunk High School. The expo displayed the school’s new equipment and provided demonstrations. A combined grant of nearly $16,000 from the Perloff Family Foundation and the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks helped purchase 20 robot kits for the new robotics class at the high school. (Alex Acquisto photo) KENNEBUNK – Students from the robotics class at Kennebunk High School and robotics team at the high school and middle school level devoted their Sunday to robotic demonstrations this past weekend, as Kennebunk High School hosted its first-ever Robo Expo.

Various stations were set up the school cafeteria, each equipped with a different robot and a different task.

A full-size robot stood at the front of the cafeteria; equal in height with many of the students, its iPad head displayed a photo of a student’s face. The middle school students brought their First Lego League robots, complete with one of their competition boards upon which a small Lego robot completed tasks in a natural disaster scenario. In the back of the cafeteria was a square arena where two robots on wheels competed against one another to complete tasks such as balancing a scale by adding an equal number of blocks into each basket. In the middle of the room was a small octagon where two students, using PlayStation controllers, pitted two small robots against one another. The objective: the push the other robot out of the octagon. The name of the game: Sumo Robot.


James Macolini, a junior at Kennebunk High School, tinkers with one of the competitive robots at the first Robo Expo last weekend in the high school cafeteria. “Some robots are made to do specific tasks,” Macolini said. “This one is designed, mostly, to move blocks, and it’s bulky because it’s more defensive.” (Alex Acquisto photo) James Macolini, a junior at Kennebunk High School, tinkers with one of the competitive robots at the first Robo Expo last weekend in the high school cafeteria. “Some robots are made to do specific tasks,” Macolini said. “This one is designed, mostly, to move blocks, and it’s bulky because it’s more defensive.” (Alex Acquisto photo) The event, which was open to the public, was a demonstration rather than a competition, said Aaron Germana, robotics teacher and head of the math department at the high school.

Kennebunk High School has the only First Tech Challenge team in Maine, Germana said, adding that the team must venture to New Hampshire or Massachusetts for competitions. Most other teams in the state, Germana said, participate in either Vex Robotics or First Robotics competitions.

“After doing research we chose FTC for several reasons: budget, continuing with First Lego League at the middle school and elementary schools, and scholarship opportunities for our students,” Germana said.

Because both the robotics class and team are largely funded through a combined grant given by the Perloff Family Foundation and the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks, extra funds to travel outside of state for multiple competitions are slim.

The robotics class at the high school is new this year. The class was adopted along with a few select others such as the engineering class taught by Alan Carp, with curriculum that encourages the use of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the classroom.

The grant given by the Perloff Family Foundation and the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks was about $15,500, Germana said. The money has been used mostly to subsidize the purchase of robotic kits and hardware. “The Perloffs and the Education Foundation have provided us with matching grants for 10 Lego Mindstorm kits to be used in the classroom, 10 combination Lego and Tetrix kits to be used in my robotics class, and the Mr. Robot kit,” Germana said.

Approximately $12,000 funded the classroom kits and the remaining $3,500 was devoted to the kit that built the life-size Mr. Robot. Eventually, said Germana, the students will program Mr. Robot to man the T-shirt cannon at football games. The robot on wheels was the team’s only competitive robot this year.

In the same way that other extracurricular groups raise money for equipment and travel to competition, in the upcoming years “one of my dreams is actually to have a robotics booster (club),” Germana said.

This year’s robotics team has nearly a dozen members. From the outside, one would reasonably assume that to be a member of the robotics team, one would have a penchant for computer programming or a sturdy foundation of robotics knowledge. James Macolini, a junior at Kennebunk High School and first-year member of the robotics team, strongly disagrees.

“I’m horrible with programming, as far as computers go,” Macolini said on Sunday as he tinkered with the competition robot. “But I have a lot of interest in hardware.”

Macolini said he did not have much of a background in robotics before joining the team this year. Rather, he had several friends who were members and who spoke very highly about the team. Until that point, Macolini was curious about computers and programming, but had virtually no base knowledge of how to program.

“I had an interest in computers, but I had never done any programming,” Macolini said.

In joining, Macolini learned that, “You don’t really have to have a background knowledge in robots or computer programming.” Instead, some of the students play different roles. For example, Macolini is also very interested in art and digital art design. After hearing the robotics team was designing T-shirts, Macolini worked with Hannah Brown, the team’s only female member, to sketch and eventually design a T-shirt, which they donned at Sunday’s expo.

That sort of diversity of skill, Macolini said, is what the robotics team tries to attract: “We try to get people who may not have a big interest (in robotics) but they want to learn more.”

Germana agreed, “That’s what you need – not just programmers and builders, but you also need managers and artists.”

With robotics, particularly, it is necessary for team members to bring a pastiche of skills to the team. “You don’t want to have too many cooks in the kitchen,” Germana said.

Robotics, like most extra curricular activities, is all about accessibility. “We want to offer the experience to others, if they want it, in a very non-threatening way.”

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