Teamwork is key to SwampBots' success


Members of the robotics team The SwampBots do a walk through for their research project demonstration of the Super Cane, during a practice for the Tampa regional First Lego League Tournament, at RTI Biologics in Alachua, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. From left to right, Connor Clifton, 10, Gary Wells, 12, Alaric Loftus, 12, Jarrod Sanders, 13, Parker Stevens, 11, and Blake Sanders, 11. (Brad McClenny/Staff photographer)

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:01 p.m.

At first glance, they look like young criminal masterminds.

It's Tuesday night at RTI Biologics, and the SwampBots are in a heated debate: What's the best way to create the most self-stable construct possible with just 100 marshmallows and a handful of toothpicks?

It's dark outside, and besides the boys — with an average age of 11 — the building is mostly empty. Their dads stand to the side and lean against a wall.

Alaric Loftus, 13, is the lead designer on the group's robot. He stands and thinks.

His lips don't twitch. His cheeks don't shake. His forehead doesn't wrinkle. He's only hunting for the answer.

Then his head jerks up.

“Guys, guys,” he starts. “We'll put marshmallows on the end of the toothpicks. Then we'll have one or two people at the end who will build.

“Agreed?”

“Agreed,” four teammates replied in a row.

The SwampBots are a local six-person robotics team that creates programmable robots out of LEGOs. They formed last fall after coach Ben Sanders, 42, and his son, Jarrod Sanders, 12, read “The New Cool,” a book about a high-school team that created a 180-pound robot and competed using a hacked Xbox 360 controller. Their boys were bright. They could make robots, too.

Building robots is what they do for fun.

They're making a marshmallow and toothpick tower as part of a brainstorming structure. Sanders gave the boys a random problem. Now, as a team, they must generate a solution.

This isn't the first time the SwampBots have had to problem-solve.

In January, they won “Best Overall,” at Robopalooza, a FIRST LEGO League qualifying tournament held in Ocala.

They didn't expect to win, at least that's what Sanders said.

During competition, he had to wait alone outside the judges' room and watch his two boys, Jarrod and Blake, and the team from behind a window.

He stood as close as he could. He wanted to catch it all. In between rounds, he would dash off to check scores.

It was nerve-wracking, he said. The team was judged on robot design and performance, project presentation, and effective and cooperative teamwork.

On the first run, SwampBot only scored 165 points. It shot up to 365 points on the next run, but the final run was somewhere in between.

“We were actually preparing the kids for defeat,” Sanders said. “We had no idea what to expect.”

So when all of the points were tallied, the SwampBots were stunned: They had qualified for the regional in Tampa, which will be held Saturday.

Now, underneath bright fluorescent lights in a building off U.S. 441, they want to get it right.

Connor Clifton, 10, narrows his eyes and tugs his curly hair. It's time to test out the marshmallow idea.

Alaric twists his contraption: a circular ball of marshmallows speared together by toothpicks.

But Parker Stevens, 11, turns to talk to Jarrod. They see holes in Alaric's idea.

“Hold on, guys! Hold on!” Sanders shouts. “Parker disagrees. Let's hear what he says.”

The group hushes and huddles. Parker speaks in a low voice.

When he's finished, Gary Wells, 12, looks at his watch. They're all wearing one.

“All right. I think Parker might be right,” he said. “Me and Alaric will start the assembly line.”

With careful consistency, they scramble to piece together the tower.

But they encounter their next obstacle: Time.

Sanders steps forward and cups his hands around his mouth.

“Guys, time's up,” he announces. “Stop your work. How do you think you did?”

Alaric glances at the half-completed tower.

The response is anonymous: “Terrible.” They slump around the table.

That's why they practice. It's an exercise in melding, Sanders said.

For middle school kids, it's a demanding request, but the SwampBots understand how critical it is to their success.

“I think we learn the most about each other,” Alaric said. “You have to give other people's ideas a chance. It's hard, but you can always keep yours as a back-up.”

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