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Students compete in robotics tournament
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Photo by BRIAN GOFF
Seminole High students compete in the U.S. First Robotics Pinellas League Championship Jan. 26 at Seminole High School.
SEMINOLE – For the uninitiated attending a robotics competition, it is sensory overload. The stands are full of cheering students and parents, music is playing, the master of ceremonies is loudly directing what is going on, a big screen showing it all in living color.

Such was the scene at the Seminole High School gym on Jan. 26 where the U.S. First Robotics Pinellas League Championship tournament was held. If it sounds like some sort of sporting event, then that is what it looked like. In the center of the gym floor was a ring with referees decked out in referee garb.

There were 14 teams of high school students from Pinellas County who had come to compete. Each team had a robot that it built, and the theme of the competition was “Ring-It-Up.”

The robots, in a series of matches, had to retrieve rubber rings from a peg and transfer them onto other pegs, all the while avoiding other robots and trying to beat the clock. The action brought the spectators into a frenzy.

Nancy Winant, a technology teacher at Seminole High was on hand as one of the sponsors of the event. She says the competition, and others like it, are invaluable to the students.

“It actually allows students to use their knowledge of math and science,” she said. “It is applied education. Robotics encompasses all disciplines in the engineering field.”

Winant said most of the students who participated in the competition will go into engineering once they graduate high school.

“These are brilliant kids,” she said. “Seventy to 75 percent of them will be engineers. This teaches them to work as a team, they are truly working together to make this happen.”

Seminole High had two teams at the competition, Nycole Sadanwaters, a junior at Seminole, is the co-captain of the Serious Business team. As the name implies, team members looked the part with business shirts and ties and dark suits. Sadanwaters says the knowledge they gain from building and working a robot is immense.

“I plan to be an engineer. So I want to be prepared to go to college,” she said. “I’ve learned tons of stuff, like how to build and program robots; it is all general technology stuff.”

Austin Marcellus, a senior at Seminole, is the other captain of Serious Business. He too plans to go into engineering when he goes to college.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but engineering,” he said. “You learn a lot here, it is all about team work and it helps your business organizational skills. And even if we don’t win it is still fun, I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”

The other team from Seminole High is called Spontaneous Combustion. Those team members were all dressed in shirts with bright billowing flames depicted on the front. They were clearly not as serious looking as their counterparts, but they were every bit as serious in what they were trying to achieve.

“The more competitions we enter and the more exposure we get gives us a better chance to get scholarships,” said Matia Payne the team captain. “When you enter a competition you get to see what other teams are doing and it can only make you better in what you are doing. Either way it is fun, it is a cool learning experience and it teaches you how to apply your knowledge to something real.”

None of it could have happened without sponsorship and adult volunteer help. A good bit of that comes from the Raytheon Company, which admittedly wants to see more good young engineers enter the workforce.

Winant, the teacher sponsor of the event, said Raytheon was vital to the entire competition. They encourage the students to not only work together among themselves but to help others as well.

“The kids have learned to help younger kids,” she said. “They have even gone over to Hillsborough County to help students over there.”

The robots are highly technical in nature. Non-technically inclined people might have trouble getting their heads around the promotional material written to describe how they work.

Using a combination of motors, controllers, wireless communications, metal gears and sensors, including infrared tracking and magnet sensing, students program their robots to operate both autonomous and driver-controlled modes on a field.

It’s very technical and very specialized. But the robots are not all about such highly skilled technology. As often as not they have to forfeit a competition because a wheel fell off.
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