On August 7, 2019

Yankee ingenuity soars to new heights

By Julia Purdy

Callum Smathers, 12, a student at Rutland Intermediate School, can explain all about the Rutland Area Robotics program to the uninitiated. The Mountain Times caught up with him at the robotics event at the Rutland library Saturday, July 20. The event was held in conjunction with the moon rocks exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Callum has advanced from the Robo-Rattlers team to the First Lego League, the second local step on the path to the world competition.

Using specialized Lego pieces, Callum’s team programs robots to move around a tabletop autonomously, completing missions to gain points, he explained.

The team also designed a project to solve a problem dealing with space, “how astronauts can stay healthy doing deep-space missions. There are large amounts of radiation from stellar objects such as the sun, which can be dangerous to their health,” he said. Studies have shown that the spacecraft gives little protection. “The earth’s atmosphere is the only reason we do not get the radiation here on earth,” he explained.

Around the room, robots buzzed, whirled and clicked as visitors milled around, watching in fascination. Team members in tie-dyed t-shirts demonstrated the robots and even played catch with one. In one corner, bits of moon rock and soils could be viewed under a microscope—minerals that we have here on earth. In the other corner, a refreshment table offered treats and boomed out the soundtrack from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In another corner, Dan Roswell, mentor for Rutland Area Robotics, was hanging out with the high school’s iBots (Team 2370).

The iBots are the next step up from the Rattlers and Rhinos, he explained. There is a team for each age group, from kindergarten through high school. The little kids build static models with Lego parts and compete before a judging panel. The highest level, “Varsity,” gives high school students six weeks to design, fabricate parts for, build and test large, autonomous robots for competition. The technology can be highly sophisticated.

All teams are supported generously by area businesses, potentially looking for tech-savvy graduates of the program. Stafford Technical Center offers work space.

Leslie Novak, 17, is an iBot strategist. She said she looks at the game and figures out how to score the most points, not only in the design of the robot, but what the team should do to win. She also leads the team that collects information on all the other teams in the events. “They watch everything everyone does, so when we go to play we know where everyone else is at, their weaknesses, their strengths,” she said.

“I joined it my freshman year because my brother was on the team the year before,” she continued. “My freshman year I was busy with other things. Specifically this year, I decided this was a little more important than the other things I was doing. I could get more out of this and there are more places to go with this, and it costs less!”

Leslie plans to study archaeology and anthropology in college, possibly with a minor in mechanical engineering.

Forest Immel, a graduate of Vermont Technical College and formerly a computer tech with the Rutland Public Schools, founded Rutland Area Robotics about 10 years ago with support from GE and other local businesses. It’s a STEM program in robotics geared to students.

The umbrella organization, FIRST, is a global nonprofit whose acronym stands for For Inspiration, Recognition in Science and Technology.

The Lego League (Rattlers and Rhinos, grades 4-8) season runs from August to February. On Aug. 1, FIRST releases the world theme for the next year. The statewide competition, held at Norwich University in Northfield, is in December, at which one team will be picked to do to World’s, held in Houston and also in Detroit in May.

“There are a few months to improve your robot,” Callum said. “There are no hints. You are competing with the best teams from around the world – Germany, England, Brazil.”

The upper level season starts in January, Roswell said. “They show us a video and say, ‘These are the rules, good luck!’ So six weeks later we get to go to different events at New England college campuses. This year we won at UNH so that qualified us to go to the New England championship at Worcester Polytechnic. We did well there and qualified for Worlds.”

Leslie recalled a favorite moment. “We won one of our district events at UNH. We went to Worlds and came in 7th overall. We were at the Worlds opening ceremony in Detroit, and the UNH team came up to us and said, ‘Hey, iBots, us—you—cornhole—let’s go!’ and we played cornhole for about half an hour.”

“There are more countries represented at Worlds than at the Winter Olympics,” Roswell added. “We played before 40,000 people. They deserve to be recognized the way we recognize sports events.

“What we’re really building is not robots, we’re building kids. We use something fun and exciting and engaging, but we’re really building students, we’re getting them scholarships, we’re getting them into schools and trying to inspire them to look at things they haven’t done before. There’s teamwork, deadlines, there’s project management, there’s a lot to it besides the robot to make the club valuable.

“Unfortunately it’s very expensive to get involved with, but if you look at these kids as the next generation of employees, it’s worth it for them. They can actually be employable right out of high school.”

The experience shows, too, in the students’ demeanor. They appear poised, not shy but not overbearing either, comfortable with the science, patient and courteous in winning over those unfamiliar with robotics.

Lyle Jepson, parent of Jacob and Mia, said, “I know very little about this, but they know all sorts of things about it. Not only are they learning about coding and all those things we think are important in our STEM society, but as important, their ability to interact with other people, their presentation skills need to be fine-tuned and they’re able to do that. They have presented and competed in front of hundreds of people. I never could have done that at their age. They also learn it’s ok to make mistakes and not quit.”

“There are only five teams in Vermont and we [Rutland] are definitely well recognized, we have a good reputation for being consummate professionals,” Roswell said. “There’s another event we go to in Burlington, called Champa, and we’ve won that several years in a row. We have to build a “Champ” [lake monster] that can float and drive on the lake and do stuff. So our background in FIRST has made us really good at this. When we show up, we turn heads.”

What about the ratio of boys to girls, given concerns about women’s representation in the sciences?

“It’s always been predominantly boys, something we’re constantly struggling to improve,” Roswell said. “We found that if you keep the peer pressure off so [girls] don’t feel like it’s intimidating, it’s effective. There’s a cultural stigma, they’re interested but … it’s techy, it’s geeky, the kind of kids that are made fun of. We’re changing the culture. That’s the real goal of FIRST.”

He described an example. “One of our students was very quiet, wouldn’t say boo to anybody, she was a great student, very academic, but she was a little bit intimidated because the boy-to-girl ratio was so high. By the end of two years I could hand her a part on a piece of paper, she would come out of the machine shop and it would be perfect every time. And she would go to a competition and she would step right up to another team and had no problem telling the other team what she wanted them to do. She knew what she could do and she had more than enough experience to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done this before, this is no big deal.’”

Collum Smathers told the Mountain Times, “For a lot of people it’s their favorite thing. Everything is autonomous now. I’d love to go into the technology of robotics. If you know how to do things with technology you can go a lot of places in this world now.”

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