Area home-schoolers get a taste of engineering

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Sam Hansen, of Baytown Township, right reprograms the firmware in the robot controller while Bayard Johnson of Stillwater waits (submitted photo)

When Sam Hansen,13, met with a team of nine other home-school students from the Stillwater area at the beginning of September, they had a bunch of raw materials a few motors and six weeks to complete one daunting task: build a robot that would simulate the process of building a computer chip.

Sam and the other members of team ServoTech fielded the youngest team that competed in this year’s Minnesota BEST Robotics competition, according to their mentor Paul Saldin, of Stillwater.

BEST Robotics, Inc., is a nonprofit volunteer organization, and the Minnesota competition took place at New London-Spicer High School in New London Oct. 18-19.
Sam, a seventh-grader from Baytown Township, said he initially became interested in the competition because he wanted to program the robot.

“I like to work on computers,” he said, adding that he runs his own small business helping people fix computers. His website is compunerd.weebly.com.

Sam’s dad, Dave Hansen, served as a mentor for the group, along with and Saldin, also a home-school father. Dave Hansen is a mechanical engineer, and Saldin is an electrical engineer.

Saldin decided to help start the group after hearing about a colleague’s positive experience mentoring a team last year.

“The goal of the whole program is to involve kids in technology and engage kids in the fun of designing a robot,” Saldin said.

But the challenge wasn’t all fun and games.

Sam Hansen said most team members invested 30-60 hours into the competition, with a few putting in up to 120 hours during the six-week project.

“I was expecting it to be a lot easier,” Sam said.

Teammate Bayard Johnson, 12, of Stillwater, agreed.

“It was … a lot more work than I thought sometimes,” he said.

“It’s quite rigorous,” Saldin said. “Not only do the kids build a robot and compete with the robot, but they also compete as if they were a company.”

That means the team had to document its work, create a trade-show booth and give a marketing presentation for their final product.

The students didn’t even know what tasks their robot would need to complete until the contest began in September.

“Every year there’s a different kind of challenge that the robot has to perform,” Saldin said.

This year’s challenge asked students to create a robot that picked up and placed large items that represented the parts of a computer chip. It required complex movements.

“The robot had to be able to grab things and turn them and drop them in the right spot,” Saldin said.

According to Saldin, the students did all the work. He and Dave Hansen helped facilitate the process, made suggestions and used some of the more dangerous power tools during construction.

Because it was a home-school group, the team met in Dave Hansen’s garage three times a week, instead of in a school classroom. That was challenging, but Saldin said it was also helpful to have the students’ parents highly engaged in the process.

Despite all its hard work, the team had a scare at the competition Oct. 18-19.
“Our robot did break down during one of the practice rounds,” Sam said. “We actually ended up taking apart most of it.”

That chewed up a lot of the time they were allotted for practicing. But team successfully fixed the problem.

When the time came for the performance that counted, Sam said the machine worked as expected.

Nine teams started the competition in September, and five competed in New London this year.

Although ServoTech took fifth, Sam and Bayard both say they’d do it again.

“It was fun,” Bayard said. “I learned a lot from it.”

Saldin said he, too, would be interested in returning next year. He’s proud of what the team accomplished.

“I think if we measured it in how much the team learned, I think we would’ve taken first,” he said.

Contact Jonathan Young at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com

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