Sammy Bratta has always been interested in electronics.
That’s why robots captured his imagination when the opportunity to join a team to design and compete with them came his way at Tara Heights Elementary School.
Along with two teammates Feb. 23, Sammy squared off in a robotic version of foosball in which robots acted as the stationary figures, roaming quadrants to either shoot pingpong balls at a goal or defend against the bouncing, plastic onslaught.
The students participated in a series of robotics competitions designed to challenge their team problem-solving skills – while encouraging excitement for science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects that are the focus of extra attention from political and educational leaders because of the demand for workers who can handle high-tech, mathematically-oriented, problem-based careers.
Hundreds of students from across Nebraska converged on the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland to take part in the Nebraska Robotics Expo. The event, which is organized by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is supported by Union Pacific, the Nebraska 4-H Foundation and the museum, among several sponsors and partners.
The expo featured the CEENBot Showcase that showed off student-augmented robots competing in different scenarios, as well as the First Lego League state tournament that brought younger students together to use Lego bricks and software to learn the basics of robotics and problem solving. A visual arts show also capped off the event.
The CEENBot was developed by the UNL College of Computer and Electronics Engineering – abbreviated within the university as CEEN – as part of a National Science Foundation project to create an educational tool to teach middle- and high-school students about robotics and introduce engineering concepts.
The First Lego League is an initiative of The Lego Group, the manufacturer of the toy building blocks and the company behind the recent “The Lego Movie.” The program lets children build Lego robots that help solve real-world problems like rescuing victims of a tornado, while also practicing presentation skills and teamwork.
Students from local schools participated in both robotics contests, and Papillion-La Vista students also did well in the visual arts expo. For James Savoka, one of Sammy’s teammates, the day meant having fun with robots while meeting new people.
Matthew Schwartz, another Tara Heights student, said he got involved in robotics because he heard how exciting it was from other students.
“It is a really cool experience to do this,” Matthew said. “You just gotta know what to do.”
Sammy said the team works together and modifies the CEENBot to compete in the different competitions.
“It is a good experience to have, a good memory to hold onto when you’re in adulthood,” Sammy said.
In another part of the Strategic Air and Space Museum, a team of students from Mission Middle School in Bellevue used a pair of robots to try to collect victims of a natural disaster – cows, cars, farm equipment and other items – racing against a clock and, at times, gravity.
Jilly Linder said she enjoys playing with robots, even though not many girls are part of her school’s club. She said she appreciates that the robots aren’t frilly and pink – as they sometimes can be in the Lego league, which is targeted to younger students.
“With the CEENBots, you can actually use your creativity,” she said.
Students from Whitetail Creek Elementary School in Gretna used a customized robot to rescue victims from a tornado. They maneuvered a robot using cameras that sometimes lagged or cut out completely – causing the team to inadvertently run over a plastic figurine representing a dog.
“The cameras always glitch out,” said Evan Rau, a Whitetail student.
Teammate Alex Garver said one of the coolest aspects of the contest was they got to represent their school, the same way student-athletes go up against other area schools with a chance to show their mettle.
In total, four other teams from Tara Heights, two from Golden Hills Elementary School and two from La Vista Junior High School represented the Papillion-La Vista School District in the CEENBot contest. A team from St. Columbkille Grade School also competed.
In the Lego contest, a team from Golden Hills and two teams from Patriot Elementary School took the field, and several students from Papillion-La Vista took home ribbons in the visual arts expo.