SOE News

Pre-College Program team builds robot, enters regional competition
JCPenney, Freelon Group are sponsors


R.J. Jackson presents his design plan to teammates.



Mentor Weldon Egerton (far right) advises students on design.



Students in the design, mechanical and programming teams gather around the chassis of the robot.

Students in the Pre-College Program (PCP) in the School of Education are dreaming big in their latest endeavor – building a robot from start to finish that can successfully perform a specific task. Twenty high school students from five different school systems in the area are teaming up to participate in the NCFIRST regional robotics competition April 1-3 in Raleigh. They will work together as a team to design and build their robot and compete with it in the coming months.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an organization that engages and inspires students as they realize their potential in science, engineering, mathematics and technology. NCFIRST Robotics promotes these endeavors in North Carolina. Students compete in a creative “hands-on, minds-on” process to develop their team robot.

This is the first year a regional robotics competition is being held in North Carolina. Teams from across the state will gather at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh for three days of robotic competition. Winners will continue on to the national competition and participants have the opportunity to win scholarships to colleges and universities across the nation.

The PCP robotics team is composed of high school students ages 14-17 who are involved in all aspects of creating their robot from the beginning design stage to the final competition. Students are divided into six teams – design, mechanical, electrical, computer programming, publicity and Web site design.  The six teams work together to take the robot from a pile of parts and wires to a functional robot capable of performing a certain task.

Various local and national sponsors have chosen to help support the PCP robotics team in a variety of ways. JCPenney and JCPenney Afterschool Program donated a large portion of the registration fee. The Freelon Group, an architectural firm in Durham, has provided mentors for the students as well as a temporary space for the team to use in building the robot.

Because this is their first year, the PCP students will compete as a rookie team. Their goal is to win the Rookie of the Year award. Just days before the competition in Raleigh, the PCP team will be grouped with two other advanced robotics teams; the three teams will compete together.

This year the students will design their robot to participate in a game called “Breakaway 2010.” In the game the robot can earn points by completing different tasks such as kicking a ball into a goal or hanging from a bar.

On Jan. 9 the PCP team was invited to attend the national robotics competition kick-off and workshop at the Penske Racing Center in Mooresville, N.C. The team learned that their robot will need to perform the task of scoring and defending a goal in a robotics soccer match. Penske provided some supplies and materials to the rookie teams, as well as mentors to help them begin the preliminary stages of their work during the Saturday workshop.

Since then, many of the team members have been meeting six days a week to continue working on the robot. They have finished the chassis and plan to have the robot completed in early February so they have time to test it before the unveiling on Feb. 20 at JCPenney at Cary Towne Center.

“The whole process so far has been a great experience and a lot of fun,” said Quentajia Small, a member of the robotics team and a sophomore at Jordan High School. “It has helped further my interest in architecture and has taught me about the process of how things are made and how to work in a group.”

Rebecca Small, assistant coordinator of the Pre-College Program, and Diane Affleck, assistant director of the Pre-College Program, are the faculty members organizing and helping lead the robotics team.

Small heard about the robotics competition through the FIRST organization. She applied for and received a start-up grant from the FIRST organization to help cover registration costs for a rookie team. Then she began to recruit students in the PCP who were interested in robots. For most of the students, this is their first endeavor in creating a robot, but they have quickly developed mechanical and engineering skills. 

“We hope the kids come out with an idea of what it takes to succeed in the world,” said Small. “We encourage them to think outside the box and to work as a team to reach their goals.”

Adam Belcher, a member of the robotics team and a junior at South Alamance High School, believes that being a part of the team has helped him develop skills he will use in the future, “I’m learning about engineering, Web design and I’ve gained technological savvy. This experience has pushed my interest in engineering to a further extent.”

The Pre-College Program was established in the School of Education in 1986 and is housed within the Center for Mathematics and Science Education. Its goal is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared to pursue careers in mathematics, science, engineering and technology and to promote mathematical and scientific literacy among all students.

The Pre-College Program serves middle school and high school students in four school districts: Alamance/Burlington, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham and Orange. They participate in weekly activities such as Saturday Academy which gives the students an opportunity to come to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to learn about science, mathematics and engineering.

The robotics team has high goals for the regional competition in April. They intend to be successful at that level and go on to compete in the national competition. In future years, students in the Pre-College Program hope to further develop their team and continue participating in robot competitions.