- Cullman, Alabama

April 11, 2013

White Plains comes out on top at robotics meet

The Anniston Star

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. — More than anything else, Dana Jenkins said, she just wanted her son, Jamie, to have a good time at his first robotics competition.

Jenkins said she didn’t want to put unrealistic expectations on Jamie, a White Plains Elementary fifth-grader, as he and his classmates competed against other schools last weekend in the Alabama Robotics Competition in Tuscaloosa.

“I said don’t put pressure on yourself to win,” she said. “Go for the experience and to learn something.”

Instead, Jamie and his classmates brought home a first-place trophy, beating more than 30 other teams from across the state, while posting the only perfect score for an elementary school in the competition.

Elementary schools of White Plains, Alexandria, Pleasant Valley and Weaver were all in the robotics competition for the first time ever last weekend. John Moore, a teacher with the Gifted Program at Calhoun County Schools, said he tried about a year ago to get together grants to make entering robotics competitions a reality for his students.

“My supervisor came to me and said ‘Really think outside the box and come up with something challenging,”’ Moore said. “Dream big.”

Moore said he stumbled across the competition a few months ago and gave his teams six weeks to prepare, meeting after school every Friday afternoon.

On Wednesday, his students demonstrated how the robots work from his classroom at the Calhoun County Career Technical Center. Teams enter a program into a computer which then sends a signal to the miniature robots to guide them through different obstacles and mazes. Teams work on a trial-and-error basis, making programs, seeing what works, and then going back and fixing the problems until they can complete the course.

Jeff Gray, a computer science professor at the University of Alabama brought the competition, now in its third year, to the campus in an attempt to get younger elementary students involved in the robotics competition.

“It’s about computer science more than robotics,” Gray said. “Right now that’s the fastest-growing job in terms of job offers and salary. Alabama hasn’t done a great job of teaching that, so events like this promoting it are really important.”

Which isn’t to say that team-building isn’t also a key part of the competition, Moore said. The coach of the four teams said the most impressive aspect of the competition wasn’t so much the White Plains victory, but the way the county schools all helped one another out.

“White Plains was having trouble with one of their sensors on the robots, so Alexandria gave them one of theirs,” Moore said. “Just the spirit of teamwork, that was what was so amazing to watch.”

Jordan Kenney, a fifth-grader at Weaver Elementary School, said his team realized about halfway through the three-hour competition they weren’t going to be able to win.

“So we wanted to help out White Plains,” he said. “They had some trouble with the program, so we helped them fix it to win.”

Perhaps fitting for a competition at the University of Alabama, one of the three courses the teams had to complete was set up to look like a football kickoff return, as teams guided their robots through a football field with obstacles that constantly moved as the competition went on.

“It was essentially an evolving maze,” Gray said. “But we hyped it as a football kickoff return, and when a team scored a touchdown it showed up on the scoreboard.”

White Plains ended up as the only elementary team to complete that obstacle course. Gray said they even beat most high school teams there that had the same course to complete.

“When we heard we won, we all jumped up and down,” said Hayden Gross, a fifth-grader at White Plains. “It was awesome.”

Moore said the students are already gearing up for their next competition in September in Huntsville. And while he expects the teamwork on display between the schools will carry over to the fall, Michaela Martin, a sixth-grader at Alexandria Elementary School, said they might be a little more competitive with the weekend’s winners at White Plains.

“We want to try and do a little better,” Martin said.