Going to Dallas

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Cottonwood Valley Charter School’s student engineers placed fourth in the 11th annual New Mexico B.E.S.T. Robotics competition sponsored by New Mexico State University in Las Cruces on Oct. 20. More than 600 New Mexico and El Paso students competed against each other at the NMSU campus, but only 10 teams advanced to the regional competition in Dallas on Nov. 9.

Boosting Engineering Science and Technology (B.E.S.T.) is what Auburn University’s non-profit volunteer-based organization B.E.S.T. Robotics Inc. hopes to accomplish by the robot-building competition, according to the organization’s website.

Each fall, more than 750 secondary schools nationwide — about 11,000 students in all — receive packages in the mail containing the materials they can use to make and program a robot.

The challenge is for the students to use these materials to design, build, and test a robot that can perform a specific series of tasks reliably within a time limit and budget. Adult coaches are there only to mentor.

This year, the instructions were to build a robot that could navigate a simulated space tower, in this case a 10-foot piece of U-shaped steel, placing and retrieving objects that imaginary astronauts would need to resupply a space station.

Empty soda bottles, small pieces of rigid foam, and empty and filled whiffle balls stood in for objects carrying water, garbage, fuel and food, as well as replacement solar panels that needed to be transported to and from the station on the simulated tower, said seventh-grader Christian Marquez.

Eighth-grader Zia Dhawan said the team followed the same process professional engineers use when carrying out a project — figuring out the tasks the robot must complete, coming up with possible designs, choosing the best design, building and testing the robot and troubleshooting.

And like real engineering projects, the teams also had to write reports, find funding sources and keep within a budget, said team business manager James Kracke.

Marquez said the team decided to build a robot that would haul itself up and down the ladder using a pulley and light-weight rope.

The robot had to be programmed to carry out the mission, said coach and science teacher Keith Burns. The students used a version of the programming language C.

The students’ program worked almost perfectly except for one glitch that the team hasn’t quite eliminated, eighth grader James Kracke said. Commands that control left-and-right and up-and-down movements on one side of the robot are backwards, but the robot can still do the tasks, he said.

At the competition in Las Cruces, robot driver Samantha Hurtgen was penalized when she had to stop the robot to fix the machine.

“When I was driving, the elbow broke, so they took away my controller for 30 seconds,” she said.

Even with the penalty, the Cottonwood team took fifth place in the game event, said volunteer coach Ruth Milner. Teams earned points for the kinds and number of tasks their robots could do within a set time period, according to Marquez.

The actual robot and its performance counts for only 25 percent of the total score for a team, Kracke said. The team is also judged on the robot design, a written report explaining the design process, fundraising efforts, and the team’s table.

Each team sets up a table displaying information related to their project. Isabel Cuevas was responsible for manning the table and answering the judges’ questions.

Samantha Hurtgen said the judges were impressed with the team’s fundraising carnival. Kracke said the team raised $300 from the carnival, and $1,500 in all. New Mexico Tech donated another $1,000 to the team.

Other major funding sources are the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Aerojet, said CVCS Principal Karin Williams.

If the team can’t raise the funds needed for each student to go on the trip by the Oct. 25 deadline, Williams said the school will cover the expenses. The team will then have the rest of the year to fund raise the balance.

Luckily, Socorro cars are always in need of a wash, especially when it’s for a good cause.