Purple Hawks soar in TCEA competition

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By ANTHONY FLORES

A robot made mostly of Lego blocks sits in the southwest corner of a whiteboard marked with various squares and circles. On the board are red and black checkers scattered throughout. When activated, the machine lowers its arm and begins to maneuver on the board, grabbing a red checker and moving it to a designated point.

The ultimate goal of this exercise is to get the red checker from point A to point B without making contact with other items on the board. This exercise is what makes up the TCEA robotics event where Liberty Hill Intermediate’s Purple Hawks – C.J. McGraw, Greyson McVan, and Preston Moore – finished 3rd overall.

“I was nervous, I was expecting it to be in some room like ours in school, not with all the people watching us in the stands,” said McVan. “I got nervous seeing that.”

Nerves aside, the most challenging aspect of competition for the Purple Hawks was the programming of the robot. The program that runs the robot is what determines its movement and how accurately it can achieve the set goal.

“Learning how to program it was hard,” said McVan. “When it turns, one-wheel stops and one wheel goes, so if you set it to 100, you don’t know how far it’s going to go. We had to get that down, and once you get a turn at the angle right, you can do any other turn.”

The delicate nature of the machine makes it react sensitively to any change in programming, forcing the group to consider every tweak they make carefully.

“You put the robot down, and it can be slightly to the right or left, and that can mess up the entire program,” said McVan.

The obstacles on the board don’t offer any easy options either.

“The checkers that are spread out can change things,” said Moore. “If they got under our wheels, it would mess us up.”

Hours of fine-tuning was the only way to figure out how to get the robot to move with the least amount of errors. The group met twice a week after school for an hour and Friday’s during the advisory period.

“It took a lot of trial and error to get it right,” said McGraw.

One person doesn’t dictate the success of the team. The group works in conjunction with one another to develop their machine.

“We all kind of share things,” said McVan. “Me and him (McGraw) are mostly the main programmers, and he (Moore) runs the program and tells us what’s wrong.”

The design of the machine for the boys was unique from others in that it used a lift contraption to move the checkers. At first, it took the boys some time to figure out how to build it before customizing it.

“Following the instructions was hard because it takes a long time,” said McVan. “Over the summer, it took us two days to do it, and we had about two and a half hours each day.”

Jennifer King, the Robotics program advisor, took 26 sixth grade students to competition to allow more students to experience competition. Because of the number of students involved, the Purple Hawks competed up a level in the advanced robotics competition, taking on 7th and 8th graders.

“When we saw we were competing with 7th and 8th graders, we thought that was impressive because we were the youngest group,” McVan said. “It was surprising; I didn’t think we were going to finish top 3. I thought we’d at least get 4th or 5th maybe.”

The Purple Hawks developed a strategy for success determined around what would earn them the most points.

“Part of the mission is prioritizing what needs to get done first and what gets them the most bang for their buck,” said King. “They had to decide which mission would give them the most points. Sometimes they would do one thing well and not touch the robot after to avoid point penalties.”

Developing a good team rapport is one of the keys to success, and although it took them a little while, the team powered through and eventually synchronized.

“When you get into it and sign up, it gets stressful, but I don’t think you should bail on it,” said McGraw. “It was like two weeks before we got in synch.”

King’s 26 students competing is the largest group the educator has ever taken to the competition, a significant leap from the first year’s numbers. LHI’s robotics program started four years ago when King first arrived at the Intermediate school.

“I’ve done robotics before in my previous school, so I wanted to bring it here as well,” she said. “We started it with just one team of four students in the first year. We started, and we’ve grown so much.”

Developing a good team rapport is one of the keys to success, and although it took them a little while, the team powered through and eventually synchronized.

“When you get into it and sign up, it gets stressful, but I don’t think you should bail on it,” said McGraw. “It was like two weeks before we got in synch.”

With the hard work paying off and the bonds of friendship they’ve developed working together, McVan encourages others to join robotics.

“It’s really fun, and I’d say to anyone if they have a chance to do it, do it. It’s awesome,” said McVan.

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