By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Eight home-schooled students from the Quincy area are heading to a state robotics championship this month in Rolla, Mo.
The students are all members of the Saint Bots, a newly formed robotics club sponsored by the Quincy Area Christian Home Educators (QACHE).
The team built a robot and entered it in a 34-team regional qualifying tournament Jan. 20 in Florissant, Mo. By racking up enough points, the team earned a trip to the FIRST Tech Challenge state tournament Feb. 23 at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
"They're excited that they're moving on to the state championship," said Alan Lukens of Quincy, whose son, Andrew, is a member of the team, comprised of youngsters from grades seven through 12.
The team was formed last summer through the efforts of Don and Tammy Wiley of Quincy, who serve as mentors for the group. The Wileys have two home-schooled sons, Joshua and Izaak, who like to build robotic toys using Legos Mindstorm technology. The Wileys wondered if there would be enough interest from other home-schooled kids to form a robot-building team.
So an invitation was circulated among families involved in QACHE, and "we had more than enough interest," Don Wiley said.
Wiley said the club got a big boost when Klingner & Associates made a $500 donation to help pay some of the group's startup costs, including some basic robotics equipment.
Several other sponsors also jumped in, including DOT Foods, which provided a laptop computer needed to operate the robot. DOT also donated two $200 grocery store certificates that the club used to buy ingredients for a spaghetti supper fund-raiser several weeks ago.
Klingner & Associates also provides a conference room where the club works on its robot and holds weekly meetings.
Lukens, who works for Klingner & Associates as a structural engineer, lends his personal expertise to the club from time to time. But he said the club's members and mentors are primarily responsible for figuring out all the steps needed to build a robot for competition.
Lukens said building the robot has been a good experience for everyone involved.
"What's really exciting about this program is it promotes science and technology," he said.
For competitions, the team must pre-program the robot to move to a certain position by itself and hang a plastic ring on a peg. Then later in the competition, the team must use joysticks to maneuver the robot from one point to another while raising and lowering its extension arm to place rings onto pegs at different heights.
All robots in the FIRST Tech Challenge class must start out at the same compressed size -- 18 by 18 by 18 inches.
"They put a cube around it, and you have to stay within that," Tammy Wiley said.
Once the robot passes the cube test, its size can be expanded through the use of extension arms that can be raised and lowered to perform tasks.
Lukens said tournaments involve "much more than just building a robot and competing with it." He said the students also must create an engineering notebook, which helps their writing skills; make oral presentations, which helps their speaking skills; and learn how to work with others while solving problems, which helps their interpersonal skills.
Carol Corrigan, the mother of two Saint Bots members -- Seth and Hannah -- says the robotics program helps youngsters in multiple ways.
"I think they're getting a lot out of it, like teamwork and working together," she said. "Part of the judging is how you treat each other. So they're learning to be patient and kind and understanding of everybody else."
During the regional tournament in Florissant, the Saint Bots won the Rockwell Collin Innovate Award, which celebrates a team that not only "thinks outside the box" but also has the ingenuity and inventiveness to make its designs come to life.
Seth Corrigan said building the robot has been educational as well as fun. For the past several years, he's been interested in a possible engineering career, but now he's also looking at possibilities in computer science because of all the programming skills he's developed.
Building a robot offers experience "for both fields," he said. "So whichever one I choose, this is going to help either way."
His sister, Hannah, admits she's "not very good with robots." But she enjoys being involved with the club because it gives her a chance to use her skills in photography, design and website development. Hannah has been configuring a website (www.quincysaints.org) to promote the club's activities, and she played a key role in designing hats and shirts to foster team spirit.
Andrew Lukens also feels the club benefits members for a variety of reasons.
"It's been a really good experience," he said. "It helps with learning to work as a team with other people. And even when some of your ideas won't work, you learn to keep trying and eventually you'll do it."
For example, Andrew told about the team's quest to develop a better mechanism to help the robot's gripping hand tell the difference between two different sizes of plastic rings used in competitions. He worked on the problem for hours until the solution "popped into my head while lying in bed one night."
His idea -- to use different weigh-sensitive touch sensors -- worked great, and it helped propel the team to the state championship.
Joshua Wiley said competing in tournaments is fun. But he also enjoys tinkering with the robot to improve its performance from one event to the next.
"It's good learning how to go through the process of seeing what works and what doesn't and seeing the end result," he said.