MURRAY, Ky. (AP) — The challenge: Build a 120-pound battery-powered robot that can complete an obstacle course both on its own and through remote control.

It may sound like something for graduate-level technology students, but this robot is being built by a high school team.

Students from Calloway County High School and Murray High School are teaming up through 4H to form the Murray Calloway First Robotics Team and compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. In the challenge, the students are given a kit and guidelines for competition and the rest is up to them.

"Our goal is to build a robot and program it within six weeks to compete in a specially designed game," said Ian Holmes, a senior at MHS and member of the programming team.

The basic premise of the challenge is to be able to pick up and place inflatable shapes onto pegs, but the devil is in the details. For starters, the robot initially has to operate autonomously, picking up an inflatable and following a path to place it on a peg within 15 seconds. After that, the students take control and compete against other teams to grab and place more inflatable pieces onto pegs in a certain order.

Each of the 2,075 teams were given the same raw materials to create their robot and some basic instructions to get started. The team members then have to come up with their own ideas for the final robot.

"It's really full scale. We're working with state of the art equipment," Holmes said.

The students are broken into five primary teams: Programming, chassis, upper arm design, website and big picture. Each team focuses on a different aspect of the robot while meeting as a large group to make sure everything is going smoothly. Progress so far has been steady but definitely challenging as the students figure out how they want to build their robot.

"It's frustrating, but addicting. I love this stuff and getting to see it completed and working," said Nate Maxwell, a sophomore at CCHS and member of the chassis team. "You have to back up a lot. One step forward, three steps back. We've had to move the wheels and gearboxes three to four times at least."

The team has been meeting at CCHS over the past few weeks, using workspace provided by teacher Jeff Slaton who is one of four adults sponsoring and mentoring the students in their task. While everyone comes from differing backgrounds and school districts, Slaton said they have all meshed together well to accomplish the common goal.

"It's going great and the kids know no difference. There hasn't been one word of 'them' or 'us,' they just see us as a team," Slaton said.

To enter the competition, the team had to put up a $6,500 entry fee. The fee includes all the materials needed, but was a steep obstacle until a grant by JCPenney made it possible to enter. The $10,000 grant not only covered the entry fee but helped purchase additional materials that will go toward middle school robotics programs.

The team will compete in a regional competition in Knoxville, Tenn., from March 31 to April 2, in hopes of qualifying for the championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis from April 27-30.

This is the first year a team has been put together from the local area to compete in the competition, and they join 416 other "rookie" teams. While knowledge carries over from previous competitions, the "veteran" teams didn't get to bring their existing materials into this year's event.

"Everyone is given the exact same materials and software, the only advantage is experience," Slaton said.

Even without a victory, it's that gained experience that team members said is valuable to them in looking toward their future education and career choices. Both Holmes and Maxwell expressed interest in a career in engineering and said this is giving them great hands-on experience they can use in the future for college and scholarship applications.

"It's all a learning experience," Holmes said. "We're given the basic programming code to modify and tweak. It's good experience in engineering."


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