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Ashe Middle School tech students prepare for battle in robotics

Lucas Pruitt, a seventh-grade student at ACMS, builds a VES Robot for use in the 2013 King of
the Mountain Robotics competition.

Originally published: Dec. 6, 2012
Last modified: Dec. 6, 2012

Adam Orr

A little rivalry goes a long way — at least that's what Ashe County Middle School's Thelma Kastl is hoping.

Kastl, a technology teacher at ACMS, heads up the system's “Project Lead the Way.” The PLTW program is one component of the county's strategic plan to develop a pipeline of workers for employment in area industry, partners with GE Aviation, Leviton, Gates Corporation, American Emergency Vehicle, United Chemi-Con and Ashe Memorial Hospital.

Through industry visits and classroom projects with local industry volunteers, students are exposed to a wide variety of technical careers.

Now, Kastl is hoping a little rivalry will spur her students efforts on by collaborating with Alleghany School's Technology Teacher Joey Whisnant and Wilkes Community College's Lead Computer Engineering Technology Instructor Keith Casey to create a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) robotics competition — the first of its kind in the area.

Dubbed “King of the Mountain 2013,” the competition will feature student-built and -programmed robots in a game called “Sack Attack.”

Played on a 12 inch x 12 inch foam-mat and surrounded by a sheet-metal and plastic-like perimeter, students score points by using their machines to scoop up cloth sacks and move them to scoring locations.

It's an inherently offensive game, according to the company that created it, VEX Robotics, and notes that, “incidental tipping, entanglement, and damage may occur as a part of normal game play.”

As a test of students computer programming skills, the competition also includes a 15-second “autonomous period,” in which the robots operate and react only to sensor inputs and to commands pre-programmed by the team into the onboard control system.

“We've had one workday so far where we took students from both schools to WCC for training and collaboration,” Kastl said. “It was fantastic. The Alleghany kids helped my kids and the WCC students helped all of the kids.”

Hopefully, the event will prepare students to compete in the regional VEX Robotics Competition held at Appalachian State University on Feb. 22 and, later, the state VEX Competition in Greensboro March 17-19.


Hands On

 The program, according to Kastl, is designed to use science and technology to motivate and challenge students.

Already, her group has constructed three machines and programmed one.

None of the machines come programmed from VEX to operate in a specific way. 

The students have to program specific actions themselves.

 If the machine doesn't function correctly, the students are tasked with figuring out why and what needs to be fixed.

That kind of functionality isn't cheap, according to Kastl, who said the basic machines cost about $600 without assembly and the specialty programming components.

“The fun is assembling it on their own,” Kastl said.

The programming language is difficult to use as well, she said.

Kastl said her students are using RobotC to program the machines.


“We discovered when we went down to Wilkes that there's another version called EasyC, so we're using that right now,” she said.

And all those struggles are designed to help students figure out the thought process they'll need to master STEM skills later in life.

“It helps them get used to the idea that if something happens, what do we need to do to understand it and fix it?” said Kastl. “If something isn't working right, why isn't it? Once they have that down, they can make repairs and code things better the next time through.”

Kastl said she started the competition with eight students, and said she's added two more students recently. On Dec. 11, she'll take those eight students to another training session at Wilkes Community College.

That's where the fun begins.

“Our (Ashe County Middle School) students will get together in the afternoon with students from Alleghany and we'll have a friendly competition,” Kastl said. “I'm sure as we get closer to January things will get much more competitive, but for right now, it's all fun.”

WCC students and professors will work with the middle schoolers to make sure their programs are running well enough to compete and then they'll let the students work it out from there.

And that anticipation is fun to be around, according to Kastl.

“I can't begin to tell you how excited my kids are,” she said. “Some students are asking to take the machines home and add to them at night. There's lots of enthusiasm floating around the room.”

Students will also be introduced to techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part, a process known as rapid prototyping, at WCC. 

ACMS and Alleghany Middle School students will design the competition logo and will send the design to WCC, where it will be programmed and turned into a three-dimensional model and later machined.

That same logo will form the basis for a trophy that Kastl hopes becomes as coveted as the trophy at the center of the Western Carolina University/Appalachian State University football rivalry — The Old Mountain Jug.

“They've designed it themselves, and the trophy will be passed back and forth to the winner,” Kastl said. “I think it's a nice touch!”


All about the logistics

For now, Kastl acknowledges the difficulties of planning a tournament from scratch.

“It's definitely an exercise in logistics,” Kastl said. “We've got 32 kids, three instructors and we're inviting the superintendents, principals and school board members as well as industry partners. So things are starting to get a little crowded.”

In addition to actually building and operating the machines, each of Kastl's students will have secondary roles during the competition.

 Each team will consist of 11 students, eight from the robot team and one sixth-grade student from each elementary school (three total) to include a photographer, a scorekeeper and a timekeeper, a concession coordinator, and a student to create media from a student's point of view.

Two to four student teams will control the robots, with an additional programming and mechanical troubleshooter to lend help, in addition to a DJ and lighting coordinator to create an atmosphere exactly like a VEX event.

“We want the kids to experience a variety of different roles,” Kastl said. “Additionally, I'd like to take my 14 (TSA) students so they know what the competition is like and can be involved next year.”

Right now, Kastl said her students are torn because each wants to be involved in the actual.

“I'll have to divide them up through the six rounds in order to be fair, but I think everybody will find something in each role they'll enjoy,” Kastl said.

By keeping costs low, Kastl hopes to expand the competition and recruit other area schools. 

“The kids will love it, I think,” Kastl  said. “If we can keep the costs low, I really think we'll be able to bring other schools onboard in the future.” 

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.