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Johnson’s Robotics Team Featured

Cedric Johnson, associate professor of political science, was recently mentioned in an article in the Democrat and Chronicle featuring the growth of local participation in international robotics competitions. Johnson and his wife started a team, The Rocbots, this year and their son is a member.

In focusing on robotics competitions for elementary students, the article notes, “The Rocbots, a team made up of fifth- and sixth-graders from Rochester and Brighton, started this year and compete in the FIRST Lego League. Their challenges revolve around real world problems, and this year the focus was global warming… Team members also had to devise solutions to a climate problem in their community, and Rocbots chose to study what happens when snow is dumped off the Court Street Bridge, depositing salt and road chemicals into the river.”

Rocbots won the trophy for innovative solutions “for its idea of dumping snow into canisters that have filtration systems on the bottom and of putting filtration systems on storm drains,” explains the article.

The complete text follows.


Democrat and Chronicle
Robotics programs gaining popularity among Rochester-area students
Erica Bryant • Staff writer • January 23, 2009

Some kids get out of school and go home to watch TV. On a recent Thursday, Ellis Snipes and George Chiu headed over to Bausch & Lomb Inc. to debate which combination of conveyor belt, combine and auger would best enable the robot they’re designing to aim balls at enemies on a field designed to imitate the moon’s gravity.

The boys are among a growing number of local students putting in long hours to qualify for an international robot competition in April in Atlanta. The competition, sponsored by the Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), has grown from 28 student teams in 1989 to an anticipated 17,591 teams this year.

The robot trend is also spreading locally. RIT is expecting 54 teams at the 2009 regional competition, compared with 18 when the event began five years ago. This year, the Rochester School District more than tripled its number of FIRST Lego League teams for youth, from eight to 27. The City School District added two new high school FIRST Robotics teams, making seven that will compete in regional rounds at RIT in March. It aims to start programs at all eligible schools. And Churchville-Chili High School has had to form two teams to accommodate demand.
Ron Borden, regional chair of the FIRST Finger Lakes Regional Planning Committee, said interest in robotics is growing because more schools are seeing the benefits of a program that encourages students to pursue engineering.

“We’ve shown now that the group of kids coming through this are taking an interest in these types of subjects and are actually changing their career paths,” said Borden, who works at Bausch & Lomb. He was a process engineer but now works full time on robotics, managing the company’s five local robotics teams and coordinating the RIT regional competition.

He said Bausch & Lomb sees the robotics program as an investment in the future. “We are developing relationships with students for the future work force,” he said. “We’re hoping they’ll become the engineers that we need to keep our business at the forefront of technology.”

Getting started

On Jan. 3, FIRST Robotics Competition teams received a kit of parts and the rules for this year’s game. They have six weeks to build a robot that must perform a series of tasks on a low-friction field. Snipes, a senior, and Chiu, a junior, are on the School Without Walls’ Bling team, one of five teams that Bausch & Lomb sponsors. On a recent Thursday, the team had narrowed its design ideas down to four and were debating whether a design with the ball feed in the front or the back would better allow them to survive head-on collisions.

“We’re going to try them all and see which one works the best and go from there,” said Snipes.

School of the Arts’ Silverbots robotics team went through this process in the fall, when the FIRST Tech Challenge began. This league, which costs $1,800 to enter and involves smaller robots, is more affordable than the FIRST Robotics Competition, which costs $6,000 for a kit. They received a start-up grant from Xerox and share lab space with the Wilson X Cats team, which Xerox Corp. sponsors.

For this year’s Tech Challenge, robots must grab pucks and deposit them in a cylinder with a triangle inside. For the first 30 seconds, the robots operate in autonomous mode. Then students take over with their remote controls, maneuvering around robots that are trying to interfere with their mission.
“They try to block us in, but our robot just pushes them out of the way,” said eighth-grader Donald Turner, who is 13.

During competitions, some members drive the robot while others gather data on other teams’ robots. Donald performs maintenance between matches to make sure bolts are tightened, batteries are charged and wheels don’t fall off. During the building season, the Silverbots worked on their robots three days a week, with some students taking the robot home for tweaking.

The Silverbots qualified for the national championship in Atlanta by winning the Northern New York Championship Tournament for the FIRST Tech Challenge that was held in Clarkson last year. They are now trying to raise money to make the trip possible and tweaking their robot to make it more competitive.

FIRST Lego League

Robotics competitions for elementary school students also are growing. The Rocbots, a team made up of fifth- and sixth-graders from Rochester and Brighton, started this year and compete in the FIRST Lego League. Their challenges revolve around real world problems, and this year the focus was global warming. A robot might, for example, have to deliver a Lego polar bear to a Lego ice cap, illustrating the trouble polar bears are in when ice caps melt.

Team members also had to devise solutions to a climate problem in their community, and Rocbots chose to study what happens when snow is dumped off the Court Street Bridge, depositing salt and road chemicals into the river. The team won the trophy for innovative solutions for its idea of dumping snow into canisters that have filtration systems on the bottom and of putting filtration systems on storm drains.

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson and her husband Cedric Johnson started the team, and their son Kimathi Johnson, 11, is a member. She is a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Nazareth College and he is a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She said their knowledge of programming and robots was not extensive. “These kids did this on their own.”

Last year the City School District had fewer than eight FIRST Lego League teams. This year there were 27. The district aims to have teams at all schools that have 9- to 14-year-olds eligible to compete by next school year, said Beverly Gushue, the district’s director of career and technical education.

The district also is trying to expand the number of high school FIRST Robotics teams, with the help of a grant from former Bausch & Lomb chairman and chief executive officer Ron Zarrella; the amount of the grant has not been released. Rookie FIRST Robotics teams are eligible for start-up grants, and Thomas Jefferson and Monroe Middle School took advantage this year.

Michael Emmerling, who has a degree in electrical engineering and teaches math at Jefferson, coaches the school’s team of 15 students. Last year he started a robotics club that participated in the Botball tournament in Brooklyn, placing fifth.
This year Emmerling’s team received a $5,000 grant from Zarrella and $1,000 in funding from FIRST to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition. They also got about $1,200 in funding from the Jefferson Student and Family Support Center in collaboration with the Society for Protection and Care of Children, and they borrow mentors from Penfield High School’s robotics team.

The team meets every weekday except Wednesday for two hours and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Emmerling says this commitment is as big, or bigger, as participating in a varsity sport.

“We have kids and parents who live every day in pursuit of Division I scholarships in athletics,” he said. “If they were to get their kids involved in robotics programs, the opportunity for scholarships is far greater. It’s the best college preparatory experience a kid could have, particularly if they are interested in engineering and technology.”

EBRYANT@DemocratandChronicle.com