Robot rumble: MAUMS tech class teaches critical thinking, math and science

Tuesday June 15, 2010

BENNINGTON -- As David Sofia pushed the syringe, water rushed from it through plastic tubing and into a second syringe attached to the other end, expanding that syringe into the wooden arm on his group's robot, which caused the robot's wooden arm to swing forward.

The goal, Sofia said, is to extend the arm to the end of a table, or "arena" as the class is calling it, then have the arm lower and retract to scoop all of the wooden blocks toward the robot.

The robot made by Sofia, Tyler Rondeau and Gabrielle Harrington is just one of the robots that students were putting finishing touches on in Thomas Sklepowicz's eighth grade applied technology class Monday.

In groups of three, all students in the class have spent much of the quarter making hydraulic robots to compete in an end of the quarter "Battlebot" competition.

For the competition, groups will face off against each other and try to drag, pull or pick up and drop as many wooden blocks from the center of the table to the side the robot is on. Blocks are valued as extra credit points, and after five points have been taken, David said robots are allowed to destroy the other group's robot.

That's the reason the second pair of 60 cc plastic syringes on his group's robot are set up to push over a wooden mallet with wood spikes drilled into it, Gabrielle said as she tweaked the alignment of the hammer.

"Through the power of hydraulics we have a saboteur and an arm," David said. "The saboteur is our (hammer), so we can sabotage our opponent, and the arm is what we'll use to get points," David said.

One of the few rules in the Battlebot competition, Sklepowicz said, is that hands cannot come into contact with the robot. All of the movements are powered through the force created by water flowing from one syringe to another.

The problem-solving project is one Sklepowicz does in his eighth grade classes each quarter. He said the students have fun doing it, but they also learn to think critically and use skills in math and science.

Students also get hands-on experience using power tools around the shop to create the robots.

The project teaches about budgeting, as every material used comes at a cost. For instance, a 60 cc syringe costs 58 cents, while a 6 cc syringe is just 17 cents, and rough pine is 73 cents per foot.

Sklepowicz said the students are expected to design the robot as if they are making a prototype to sell to a toy company, and while they aren't given a dollar amount they are allowed to spend on the robots, the goal is to make it cost-effective.

"They're not given any amount, although they want to sell it as an educational toy eventually so kids can learn about hydraulics, pneumatics and some science and math, so we're trying to keep the prices down," Sklepowicz said.

Gabrielle said keeping the price down isn't something her group was to concerned about, but instead they focused on winning the Battlebot competition. Their robot, the group said, was going to cost close to $40 by the time they were finished.

On another team, Ben Gelheiser, Conner Rawling and Ben Seward, said they used less than $20 worth of material, which they said made their robot a cheaper alternative while still maintaining a high quality.

Their robot had an additional set of syringes compared to many, giving it the ability to extend and retract the arm with one set of syringes and then raise and lower it with a different set so its movements would be more precise.

"We just push these syringes and that will lift it up and then we push the next two and it will go out and then we just pull them back in and it'll grab all the points," Gelheiser said, as he showed off the group's robot. "Our goal is just to get as many points as quickly as possible."

At the conclusion of this week's competition the teams that gather the three highest point totals will receive a trophy, although the real prize of the competition is the critical thinking and team building skills the students have gained over the last few months in class, Sklepowicz said.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at


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