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Steely nerves: ACMS battles Alleghany in robotics tournament

Originally published: Feb. 14, 2013
Last modified: Feb. 18, 2013

Adam Orr

Students from Ashe County Middle School and their counterparts from Alleghany County took technology to the mat Tuesday. The teams squared off at the John A. Walker Center on the campus of Wilkes Community College in a first-of-its-kind technology competition. 

Alleghany County elementary and middle-school students swept Ashe County 3-0, although Ashe County Middle School Technology Facilitator Melanie Jordan said her ACMS students will be harder to beat the next time. 

“While Alleghany did win, I think our kids realized that there is more to this competition than just building the machines,” said Jordan. “I think they figured out that a big part of a winning strategy is going to incorporate actually controlling the machines during the matches. I think maybe we focused more on building than we did on actually competing. I think (our students) understand the thought process much better now.”

The “King of the Mountain Robotics Competition” brought together teams that have been preparing for the competition for months by building and programming semi-autonomous machines. 

A collaboration between Alleghany School’s Technology Teacher Joey Whisnant, Wilkes Community College’s Lead Engineering Technology Instructor Keith Casey and Ashe County Middle School’s “Project Lead the Way” teacher Thelma Kastl, the King of the Mountain competition is a way to create a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) robotics competition. 

Helped and coached by WCC engineering students, the Ashe and Alleghany middle-schoolers built and battled with robots they constructed and programmed in a game called “Sack Attack,” played on a 12 inch by 12 inch foam-mat and surrounded by a sheet-metal and plastic-like perimeter. 

Students scored 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.”

Beginning with one machine in action on each team, the game progressed through three rounds that ultimately culminated in a three-on-three match. 

As an inaugural competition, strategy on each team was simple — both squads rushed to push as many sacks as possible onto the other teams side. Neither teams’ machines had a distinct technical advantage, so each game often boiled down to machines in the center of the mat pushing against the other in a battle of inches. 

The event also included a little robot carnage as both teams battled technical problems. An Ashe County robot lost a wheel, and on more than one occasion, the ACMS team battled control issues that left their machines unresponsive, giving the Alleghany team a definitive advantage. 

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

Kastl has hopes the event will prepare students to compete in regional and state VEX Robotics Competitions like Appalachian State University’s on Feb. 22 and, Greensboro on March 17-19. 


Hands On

The program, according to Kastl, is designed to use science and technology to motivate and challenge students. The competition required students to build their machines, and since none of the VEX machines come pre-programmed to operate in a specific way, students must program the machines on their own. 

“They have to program it themselves,” said Kastl. “That’s part of the fun.” 

If the machines don’t function properly, the students are tasked with analyzing why and fixing it. 

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

The programming language used by the machines, RobotC, is difficult to learn and work, according to Kastl. 

But each of those struggles is 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 in a December 2012 interview. “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.”

Since November, WCC students and professors have worked with the ACMS students to ensure their programs are running well enough to compete, 

WCC students and professors also worked with the middle-school students during the past several months to ensure their programs are running well enough to compete. 

Beyond that, however, they let the ACMS students figure things out on their own. Students were also introduced to techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part, a process known as rapid prototyping, at WCC. 

Students even designed the competition logo that will form the basis for a trophy Kastl hopes becomes as coveted as the trophy at the center of the Western Carolina University/Appalachian State University - The Old Mountain Jug. 

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

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.