Jeff-Craig ‘Riverbotics’ robotics team earns trip to State Competition

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For being their first ever competition, the ‘Riverbotics’ robotics team from Jefferson-Craig Elementary School certainly established high expectations on Saturday, as the team won the event and in doing so advanced to the state competition later this month.

The competition was held in Liberty, Indiana, this past Saturday, February 4th.

“What they’ve done is, they’re trying to extend the program,” teacher and coach Brian Grigsby said. “They got a grant and they have really increased the size of the competition. It went from being just a lot of school around Indianapolis and in Northern Indiana and now it’s spread all over the state of Indiana. With this grant, there’s 400-percent more schools doing it now than there was before.”

Grigsby said that the robotics program is STEM-driven (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and is working to increase awareness and participation in robotics.

“The reason I did it, was because Mr. Spoores (Jeff-Craig Principal Tony Spoores) saw it and said, ‘they’re giving these grants, would you be interested?’ so I like trying something new every year, so this is kind of my new thing for the year.”

That’s when fellow teacher and coach Connie Ingels heard about what was happening.

“Connie said, ‘hey, can I get in on this?'” Grigsby said. “I said, ‘absolutely!’ because I know nothing about programming, so Connie took over the programming aspect of it.”

Students in the fourth and fifth grades at Jeff-Craig make up the team, which began by building the actual robot.

“We took a week and just began building the basic robot that was in the design that they had for us and everything else,” Grigsby said. “Basically we started with the booklet and following the steps of building the robot. We discussed what a motor was. We discussed what an axle was. What different motions we wanted and things like that. We walked them through this robot.”

Grigsby said that every school participating could build whatever robot they wanted.

“You can actually design your own robot,” Ingels said. “We’re beginners, and you could tell the ones who were beginners, because they basically had this design. Next year we’ll probably work on trying to figure out a different robot, because we’ve got a little bit more information under our belt now.”

“This was our first competition, so we just thought we were going to go, have a good time, see what was going on, and learn from this. That was our ultimate goal,” Grigsby said.

Grisby and Ingels both said that it didn’t take long for the imaginations and the expertise of the students began to come out.

“We built this robot, and then after we built it, some of the kids were saying, ‘Hey, we’re struggling to pick up these hex balls. We need to extend our arms’,” Grigsby said. “We just kind of stood back and let the kids say, ‘Hey, we need to do this’, and then we sort of guided them through that. It was a lot of us standing back and guiding, so while they were building the robot, everybody was participating in building the robot. We would put them in groups of two or three; and one group would put the tire on and another group might put the motor on. Then they rotated in building it, because we wanted to have all the kids with their hands on that robot.”

Once the robot was built, team members then got jobs, from a treasurer to students serving as programmers working under Ingels to drivers to field experts. Grigsby took over the designing and the driving while Ingels took over the programming.

Attempts at funding fell through, so the team began improvising, building things out of cardboard and drywall pieces to simulate the ‘board’ that would have to be tackled at the competition. Other schools competing had purchased a board that was identical to the one used in the tournament, but the Jeff-Craig squad didn’t let that detract them.

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At Liberty on Saturday, the team found a unique way in which the competition was held; as a team of two Jeff-Craig team members were paired with a team of two members from another school, with one from each school paired with the other.

The teams had to maneuver through a course on the ‘board’, which involved the ‘Vex IQ’.

Grigsby said that points were accumulated by several different means, from knocking hex balls off of a wall in the middle of the board to moving hex balls from one side of the board to the other by way of a tilting ramp called a ‘bridge’. Each process carries a specific point value; but the most points – 25 – is earned when the two robots competing at that time manage to balance themselves on the bridge at the same time. That meant that teamwork between the two schools competing was at a premium.

The two schools accumulated the same number of points in a round, but teams had different partners in each of the 10 rounds of the competition, so each school amassed its own points. At the end of the 10 rounds, the top 10 teams then advanced to a ‘knock out’ round, with a pair of schools emerging at the end as the overall champions.

On Saturday, that was Jefferson-Craig and Brookville Middle School.

But the actual competition was not all of the learning that was going on during Saturday’s match.

“This was a cooperative competition, so they were working with another team to get as many points as they possibly could in a particular round,” Grigsby said. “When we first got there, basically the kids just went to the competition, they went to their board and they tried to score points. They really didn’t talk to the other team. What was really cool about this is the communication. These kids were going up to other teams and discussing strategy. I walked them through that a couple of times, but by the end of the competition they were scoping them out. They would run over and introduce themselves and start talking about strategy. We went from getting 11 and 13 points at the beginning to 38 points at the end.”

“Because they were talking about strategy and how things worked,” Ingels said.

The final and deciding match came down to the closing seconds, with Jeff-Craig and Brookville needing to balance their robots on the bridge to earn the 25 points and the overall victory. With seconds ticking off, Jeff-Craig had its best driver, fifth grader Patty Miller, at the controls.

“We were working with the second best team, ‘Top Dogs’, and we had like five seconds left and we had to get onto the bridge in order to win the competition and qualify for the state, and it was the last second when we actually got the bridge balanced,” Patty said. “That gave us the big score. It was pretty exciting. I was really nervous because this is our first year doing this, and we had won by five points.”

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The ‘Riverbotics’ team now advances to the State Competition on Saturday, February 25th, which is being held at IUPUI in Indianapolis, and will feature 94 of the top teams in the state. New funding has allowed the group to purchase an actual board to practice on and prepare on; and the team’s programming will also come even more into play – so the work continues as the team hopes to bring home an even bigger prize.