January 12, 2013

Local robotics team wins regional competition


---- — BEEKMANTOWN — Seven kids, ranging from age 10 to 14, worked in small groups, some sitting in front of a computer, others standing next to a table filled with odd-looking mechanisms.

The kids, all home-schooled, are members of the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Robotics team and are preparing for an upcoming national competition in the First Lego League Robotics Challenge after winning the regional challenge at Clarkson University last December.

“They are all members of the same 4-H group and participated in last summer’s robotics competition at the (New York) State Fair,” said 4-H leader Melissa Sayward, whose son, Liam, first learned of the robotics competition during the 2011 State Fair and brought back the idea of starting a local 4-H team.

“Our coach (Ron Vaughn) is away at a competition himself right now, but he heard these guys were starting a team and wanted to help,” she added. “He participated in First Lego League when he was younger (living in Maine).”

Following a first-place finish at the State Fair in August, the team turned its attention to the official First Lego program, which combines robotics, computer programming and engineering by using Lego building blocks to construct robots and program them to successfully complete tasks.

“As a 4-H group, we were meeting regularly to learn about robotics,” Sayward said of the team’s initial preparation for First Lego League competition. “We started (focusing on Lego League) at our 4-H meetings during the fall.”

The team went into the regional competition with hopes that they would pick up some valuable experience for future competitions, but their programs aimed at highlighting ways to help make life easier for senior citizens landed them on top of the victory podium.

“One of the important things they got involved with was working with a senior citizen to learn about the problems seniors face,” Sayward said, noting that the team “adopted” retired college professor Byrne deGrandpre as their source of information about senior issues.

Their success at Clarkson has translated into a trip to St. Louis in April for the World Festival.

“I really like it,” said robotics team member Ben Caito, 12, from Jay. “It’s a good goal for us to plan on doing well for our next competition.”

Caito said he is interested in robotics because of the opportunity it provides in working with motors and computer programming. He said he would like to learn how to write computer programs that robots can use.

“I’ve always been interested in building things,” said teammate Vienna Ainsworth, 14, from Plattsburgh. “Lego League offers us specific challenges that we can set goals to reach. It’s a lot of fun.”

She also said the camaraderie between the team members has grown even stronger since they began focusing on robotics competition. She has known her teammates through 4-H for several years, she said.

“I like programming robots to make them do exactly what I’ve programmed them to do,” said Liam Sayward, 12, from Peru. “Sometimes in competition, a robot will malfunction. I like working on ways so they won’t malfunction.”

Other members of the team are Christopher Neureuther, 10; Trent Yourdon, 10; Bradley Neureuther, 12; and Sullivan Kyle, 14.

The entry fee for the St. Louis competition is $1,000, so the team has begun working on fundraising activities to help pay for the trip west. Anyone interested in helping can call the Cornell Cooperative Extension at 561-7450.

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