Local students are busy fine-tuning robots


Dan Frank, left, a mentor, helps Josh Talmore, 14, a freshman at P.K. Yonge, learn about lights on the robot on Friday in Gainesville. A robotics team from P.K. Yonge is building a robot that will shoot basketballs at a target.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 7:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 7:20 p.m.

From protecting people from food-borne illnesses to playing basketball, robots constructed by Alachua County students can harness the power of young minds and spark interest in STEM education.

A team of 17 P.K. Yonge Research Developmental School students is building a robot that will have to climb barriers, trap balls and score. Another team, from Lincoln Middle School, plans to show how robots can help in food safety.

Both teams are in the first year of competing in U.S. for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology matches. Lincoln’s team, the Deep Blue GATORS, had its match in early January. PKY will have its match in March.

US FIRST and other such programs aim to use robotics to expose children to STEM fields -- the fields that incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Lincoln sixth-graders Daniel Koropeckyj-Cox, Omar Helmy, Arjun Panicker, Kofi Asare and Anousha Peters will demonstrate their robot and share their research at the Tower Road Library on Saturday.

Lincoln students met with University of Florida professors, learned programming and worked for four months on building and designing their robot.

Lincoln’s robot has three motors and several sensors for light, touch, color and sound.

Lincoln students had to compete in several missions, including keeping foods at cold temperatures.

“The main point of all these missions was to show how robots can help with food safety,” Arjun said. “We’re taking out the germs and keeping it safe for all the food.”

Students created an acronym, FAT TOM, to help them remember the factors in food safety: food, acid, time, temperature, oxygen and moisture.

As part of some missions, students went the extra distance with their robots to show how distance can affect foods.

“When you travel, you encourage new bacteria and diseases,” Daniel said. Finding ways to stop that from occurring earned the team extra points.

Lincoln students also presented a smart lunchbox. The lunchbox, currently in design form, has separate compartments for food, ice packs and a moisture-wicking substance that removed any moisture from the compartments. A sensor detects when the lunchbox gets too warm and sends a signal, prompting an ice pack to be crushed.

“When kids take lunch to school, it sits in hot temperatures for a long time,” Anousha said.

Students also plan to develop a phone application where parents can track what students packed for lunch. The team said it may help health practitioners pinpoint what food made a child sick.

P.K. Yonge, led by adviser Kerry Thompson, is in the midst of spending six weeks building a robot that will have to shoot and score at its competition in March.

It’s not easy, Thompson said. “It takes a lot of money to get this started.”

The starter kit and registration alone costs $6,500. Donors and grants helped pay for the expense while UF has provided space and mentors for students.

The PKY team consists of 17 high school students, six of whom are female. The students work on the robot six nights a week, learning a new program, building the chassis and developing other mechanisms.

Evan Cowles, an 18-year-old senior, said some challenges aren’t mechanical. The students have had to learn to work as a team.

Even in failure comes success, he said.

“We’re not going to get it right the first time,” he said. “We can use ideas we’ve thrown out as conversation points and places to bounce ideas off to see if they have any viable use on what we’re doing now.”

Bunmi Fayiga, a 16-year-old PKY senior, used a hacksaw on metal rods during one session.

“I came into this not knowing anything about engineering,” she said. “Everything you touch has an engineer behind it.”

It’s helped create an appreciation for physics and the work behind every product for sophomore Mason Rawson.

“You never really think about how difficult it is to do anything until you have to build it yourself,” he said.

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