Updated Mar. 29, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.

Johnston Community College takes STEM 'out of the box' with countywide robotics team

Published: 2017-03-29 05:00:00
Updated: 2017-03-29 09:30:17

 JOCOS ROBOS robot The JOCOS ROBOS robot, Brave Little Toaster, roamed the course cleanly but was unable to climb a rope, a much tougher task. Image 1 of 7 · Next Image…

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Editor's note: This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Johnston Community College.

SMITHFIELD — Last year, the newly formed JOCO ROBOS team from Johnston Community College took the rookie prize with their first robot at their first FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. They went into the FIRST district competition last weekend hoping to qualify for the state competition this weekend at Campbell University.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

“We had a great time at the Raleigh district event over the weekend,” said Lance Gooden, JCC Director of Programs Mathematics, Engineering, and Social Sciences, and robotics faculty sponsor. “Unfortunately we did not do well enough to qualify to compete at the state competition. We experienced several connectivity and programming issues.”

But the team will be at the state tournament -- just not as a competitor. JCC is cosponsoring with Campbell University the state robotics competition with support from the JCC President’s Innovation Fund.

JOCO ROBOS is a countywide high school robotics team hosted by the JCC Associate in Engineering Program.

For six intensive weeks, they had met most weeknights between sports practices and homework to design, build, program and run a robot to meet stringent competition requirements, while also marketing to local businesses for support. And the team logo needed updating. And the mascot needed a whole new look. And the giveaway had to be designed and made – in this case, 3D printed “keys” suitable for wearing.

“Like NCAA basketball, it’s learning in action,” said Gooden. “This experience challenges students to think outside the box.”

It’s unusual for a community college to sponsor a robotics team. Robotics teams typically come from a single high school. Students make executive, technical, financial, strategic and operational decisions that mirror those of successful engineering companies, priming them for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It’s primarily a recruitment tool for us that’s also used as a teaching tool,” said Dawn Dixon, Dean of Arts, Sciences and Learning Resources.

The JOCO ROBOS team comes from most of the Johnston County public and private high schools, including some home schoolers. They may have started as strangers, but they don’t stay that way long.

“From day one, it’s like they’re the best of friends,” Dixon said. They have supported each other through the inevitable series of small failures that comes with building a robot.

At their last meeting before the district competition, most of the 29 high school juniors and seniors were trying to get the robot named Brave Little Toaster (BLT) to climb a rope. Climbing a rope is worth 50 match points in the world of competitive robots, much more than simpler functions.

The rules of the competition are comprehensive and based on strict limits. Practice times when the robot can be “unbagged” are limited, averaging 3-hour periods. A team can’t start before January designing and making their robot, and it can’t weigh more than 120 pounds.

On that last evening of practice, the clock ran out.

The bottom half of BLT, the part on wheels, went for a spin around a classroom set up to replicate the tournament playing field. At the same time, the top half was being refitted to be leaner and better able to climb. But the two halves wouldn’t get together that evening. The test came at the tournament.

“The climbing mechanism was eventually assembled on the robot,” Gooden said. “It was fully functional. We managed to grab our rope but were unsuccessful in lifting off the ground.”

The team didn’t win any of the team awards but received two individual awards.

Gooden was nominated by his team for the Woodie Flowers Award for mentorship, and Reichen Agbayani and Natalie Plahuta were among several students nominated for the Dean's List Award. Both Gooden and Plahuta will go on to compete as finalists at the state championship.


WRAL TechWire Partner: InnovatorThis story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Johnston Community College.

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