The Fabulous Fire Fighting Falcons and the Austintown Mad Scientists are on a roll as they compete in the field of robotics. The two individual teams are part of the overall AMS robotics after-school program, which also includes the Sand Devils and the Biohazards teams.
The robotics club at AMS begins in September when kids sign up for the robotics team. It is open to all AMS students from fifth to eighth grades.
"When we got together for the first time in September, the students were split into teams based on the days that they could practice and when coaches are available," said robotics head coach Andy Yantes.
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Fabulous Fire Fighting Falcons robotics team members Hannah Harris, coach Bill Harris, Brandon Malahtaris, and coach Greg Doll in competition in Girard, recently where they had to identify and deal with a natural disaster by programming their robot entry.
He said some teams such as the Austintown Mad Scientists, consist of two families plus a couple of other kids that fit into their practice schedule. From there, it is all about learning the finer aspects of building a functioning Lego robot.
The product the teams use is the Lego Mindstorm NXT robot. According to Yantes, the students build their robot by using only Lego parts, but the kids are encouraged to work on their own designs.
During the after-school sessions, the students come together with their respective teams and the work begins. Yantes said the program is designed to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). At the same time, they learn to work together as a team to find solutions to completing a competitive robot.
"They have to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors," Yantes said. "We know our coaches and mentors don't have all the answers, so we learn together. What we discover is more important than what we win."
The teams also follow the FLL (First Lego League) core values such a spirit of friendly competition.
Early on, the teams have to decide what direction they are going with their robot. Each year they can choose a scenario under the FLL and then design their robot to work within it. This year, the theme was Nature's Fury. Each team was instructed to identify a natural disaster, identify a location where the disaster could take place, then devise a plan to help prepare for the situation. Austintown Mad Scientists chose a Flood in the community of San Antonio, Tx. As their scenario.
The competition isn't all about controlling a robot either. The team members had to go before a panel of judges and give a presentation as well as answer questions. After that requirement is completed, the teams move on to compete on a 4-by-8 foot board. The robots had to perform and complete a mission by maneuvering through obstacles.
At the Girard FLL Regional Tournament on Nov. 23, the Austintown Mad Scientists took top honors and won the tournament championship trophy. That victory advanced the team to the District Tournament being held at AMS on Jan. 11. If they place in the top teams at that event, they could qualify for the state tournament in Dayton.
The other three teams at AMS are the Fabulous Fire Fighting Falcons, the Sand Devils, and the Biohazards. The Sand Devils and Biohazards will be competing in Warren on Dec. 7.
The robotics team continues throughout the school year. Once the competition is over, the teams will continue to meet to plan next year's entry and will work on things they had learned from their experiences.
Yantes said the cost is minimal. A team pays a $250 fee at the start of the year, then an additional $75 per competition event. It is operated similar to the high school team, which is self-funded through fundraising events and donations.
At the high school level, the fundraising is a little tougher. Yantes said the budget for this year is $25,000 which requires a lot of fundraising and donors. Unlike the AMS teams, the Fitch team has to wait until Jan. 4 to learn what the competition game will be. Once it is known, the high school team will have six weeks to design and build an entry. Yantes said many long days and nights are required to get the job done and have a finished robot that will complete the pre-determined tasks.
"We want the students to do the work, not advisors," he said.
To show off last year's entry, some Fitch team members visited Austintown Rotary recently where they gave a talk about the robotics team. Coach Andy Yantes along with Fitch team members Wesley Pringle, Eileen Yantes, and Zachary Venzeio, showed off last year's robot.
One big plus for the Fitch team is the fact that many of the AMS robotics team members will want to move up the ladder when they hit high school. In the long term, both the AMS and Fitch robotics programs are doing what they are intended to do, get kids interested in STEM.