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Robot project proves to be fun challenge

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news Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Armed with a pair of joysticks, Worthington High School sophomore Andy Ruppert leaned over a table after school on Monday, pressed some buttons and looked like he was ready to play a video game.

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Instead of standing before a video screen filled with characters, however, his eyes were fixed on a metal platform on wheels. Each time he moved the joysticks, the contraption would move in forward or reverse.

It may not resemble one of those robots seen in futuristic films or television sci-fi, but a robot it is.

Several WHS students in grades 9 through 11 volunteered for the school's first venture in the robotics program. The competition began on Jan. 8, when they received their parts kit at a kick-off in Mankato, and will wrap up on Feb. 22, when they must ship their finished project off to the state contest.

"I think we'll have it (ready)," said WHS assistant principal David Rezny, who spearheaded the program at the school. "We'll be down to the wire, but we should be ready to go."

WHS is one of 137 schools in Minnesota taking part in the First Robotic Competition, whereby they receive parts, software and basic instructions in crafting a robot to do specific tasks.

At this year's contest, the robots will maneuver through a course, pick up inner tubes of varying sizes and carry them to a specific location and then place them on a peg on the wall.

It may sound easy, but it's proving to be anything but for the group of students. They've already poured many hours into the project, working on the robot after school every day and even on a couple of Saturdays in the last five weeks.

Said team member Peter Scholtes, they celebrate every little break-through -- every accomplishment --because it's taken a lot of time and effort to achieve it.

A sophomore, Scholtes has been dubbed head programmer for the project. It's been his role to figure out how to wire the robot and get it in motion.

"We're struggling to get the programming code down to drive it," he said after school on Monday. The students gather at the shop room after their last class, and stay until 6:30 or 7 p.m. to fine-tune the technology.

Ruppert has been helping Scholtes with the code work, but others on the team have been tasked with everything from welding and wiring to maintaining a website (http://www.isd518.net/act/Robotics/www.robotics3871.htm) to share the story of the robot's construction.

Though Scholtes said there is a lot of work yet to do, he's confident they will be able to compete using "at least one tactic," for the state contest, which is March 31, in Minneapolis.

The goal of the contest is to get students to do most of the work -- about 95 percent of it, in fact. Still, adult supervision and technical assistance is needed, and the WHS team has been aided by a couple of volunteers from Bedford Industries, and a third from JCPenney, which is the primary sponsor for this year's WHS robot.

Ben Weber, an engineer with Bedford, said he was willing to volunteer his time after he learned the students were going to build a toy.

"I like toys," he said with a laugh.

Weber has put as many days into the project as the students, advising them of how different components can change the robot's abilities.

"My role is 'this structure won't work, or this will,'" he said. "They had a blank idea, but they've never built anything. A lot of what I've been doing is translating their ideas into mechanical functions."

Some parents of the team members have also been involved in the construction process, which mainly consisted of welding pieces of aluminum together.

The entire project has been a great hands-on experience for the students.

"It was a learning experience for all of us," said Scholtes. "I came into it without knowing how a robot functions. This past six weeks has been extremely difficult, but ... it was definitely fun."

"There's not just one thing I enjoy about it," added Ruppert. "It's just a wonderful thing."

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