Saffell Street robotics team gearing up for competition

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By Christian Marnon

 The anatomical mat on the floor of the Saffell Street Elementary STLP classroom looks like a super-sized game of Operation, but it’s not exactly child’s play. 

“Body Works” is the theme of this year’s RCX Robo Challenge Xtreme, a Kentucky-based robotics competition aimed at developing STEM skills among elementary, middle and high school students. 

More specifically, teams from across the state are tasked with programming a robot to execute various “missions” on the 4-by-8 foot “Body Works” challenge mat, which connects to the growing application of robotics in modern medicine. 

“Robotic medicine is a huge field,” said STLP coordinator and coach Jeff Eller. “This group could be using a robot to work on me 20 years from now.”  

The Saffell Robotics team, comprised of 10 fourth and fifth graders,  recently unpacked their EV3 robot. LEGO designs and manufactures the EV3, which has functioning motors and sensors that allow the robot to move, grab, and perform various tasks. Students program the robot for its core functions by using the EV3 Programmer app.

“[Our team] will create code on an Ipad or Chromebook and download it to the robot,” Eller said. 

Shoddy code means an uncooperative robot, so teams must apply geometry, multiplication and critical reasoning to ensure the EV3 performs efficiently at the regional competition in February. 

There are 15 total “missions” on the judges’ competition scorecards, most of which involve moving LEGO objective pieces with the EV3. The objective pieces simulate real medical challenges like heart transplants, torn muscles, clogged arteries, kidney stones and dislocated shoulders. 

Each de-clogged artery, for instance, merits 35 points on the scorecard. 

Although teams are grouped by age, Eldridge said competition is stiff. 

“We are competing at Georgetown College with students from all over the state from public, private and home schools,” he said. 

Eller formed the Robotics team two years ago, so some of the present members have at least a year of experience with programming. The goal is to reach state, but they’ve placed as the best elementary team in the district for those two years. 

As STLP coordinator, Eller actively seeks new ways for students to engage with burgeoning technological trends. In addition to robotics, he assisted students in creating websites for faculty members. In November, the Saffell STLP Leadership Team showcased their “Saffell Sites” at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The judges awarded them a score of 92 out of 100, which qualified them for the state competition in March. 

The robotics team was in need of the materials for a competition board to hold the “Body Works” mat until Lawrenceburg Supply donated them. Now they just need a carpenter or builder. 

Board or not, the team is moving forward now that the EV3 has arrived. Whatever the results, Eller said he wants to prepare his STLP group for advanced science, technology, engineering and math classes down the road. 

“The idea behind all this is to have them take STEM classes with real curriculum once they reach middle school,” he said.