Local robotics team nets state crown

Coaches usually don’t like to admit it. But in the case of Lisa Altan’s Ulti-Mat 4-H robotics team, she said “this year was a rebuilding year.”

Fresh off netting a teamwork award at last spring’s state 4-H Robotics Challenge, her squad took a hit in numbers and experience entering this year’s campaign. As the squad began practicing in the fall of 2016, the five team members included one returning eighth grader along with two new fourth grade students taking part for the first time.

But they rose to the challenge to win the Level I division of the 2017 Illinois 4-H Challenge on May 6, winning the state meet held in Springfield.

“I never dreamed it would come out like this. Thursday night at the end of our meeting, the robot was sitting in pieces on the table,” said Altan of the team’s final tune-up before the Saturday meet.

Not deterred, the Piatt County-based Ulti-Mat Master Builders – with team members Simon Beazly, Caleb Moore, Cauy Wooten, Logan Bayless and Jesse Moore – saved their best for the trio of table runs they were allowed at the state challenge. One of those included a perfect run, prompting the youth to code new items into their final round to earn a division-best 104 points and the title.

In this particular competition, teams build robots that are coded to run a certain course and accomplish specified tasks on a 4-by-8-foot mat. They are not remote-controlled, but instead respond to predetermined coding.

Teams start with a small “block” that includes the basic robot/computer.

“That’s the guts of it that they program and then they have to build anything and any attachment they used in the challenges,” said Susan Houska, the 4-H youth and development worker for the University of Illinois’ Piatt County Extension Unit.

“So they learn a lot of engineering, as well as coding and problem solving,” she added.

This year’s theme was Health Bot, encouraging healthy choices.

Of the myriad of challenges that were allowed, the Ulti-Mats chose to have their robots jog the length and width of the mat and take part in simulated hurricane flood relief.

“We rescued a little lego mini figure from a nine-inch house and took him to a school,” said Altan.

For extra credit, their two robots performed a coordinated cheer, made possible with a bluetooth connection between the machines.

Altan has headed up the local robotics team since 2014, and said it allows an outlet for technology-savvy kids.

“The kids get to design the table however they want to design it. They get to choose what they want to do,” she said.

The flexibility came in handy at the state meet. The Ulti-Mats had programmed their bots to use reflected light intensity to determine colors on the mat, which help trigger particular tasks. But at the Orr Building at the capital city’s Illinois State Fairgrounds, the sun came out in the middle of their first run, driving one of their robots into a circle-turning frenzy.

The team adjusted on the fly and fixed the coding to accommodate for the added light, leading to their victory.

Houska said the robotics team started out of a statewide 4-H push for more science and technology based efforts.

“It’s part of state push for STEM programming (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) they started in the fall of 2014. It came from the state 4-H office wanting to promote more STEM things with the kids,” stated Houska.

Open house
Those wanting to see the Ulti-Mat Master Builders’ bots in action are invited to attend a Piatt County 4-H open house from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25 at the Piatt County Extension Office, 210 S. Market St. in Monticello. A robot demonstration will be part of the open house, where attendees can also get more information on the local 4-H program.


 

Categories (4):News, Education, People, Technology

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