Four Early Middle School teams have advanced to the Area competition, to be held Jan. 25, at Robert Lee. The teams - Stooges, Walleee, #Engineers, and Robo Bots - are comprised of sixth, seventh, and eight graders, with some having been involved in the program since its inception, four years ago. The high school program is in its first year.

The robotics competition is coordinated by the Texas Computer Education Association, with twenty areas, across the state. Teams compete against others from schools of all sizes, rather than the familiar UIL classifications. Students interested in the robotics program are eligible to begin while in elementary and continue through high school. 

While the layman might consider the robots "a toy", nothing could be further from the truth. The latest model Early's program was able to purchase, a 541 piece set Lego Mindstorms, cost about $450, with other sets approaching $1,000. 

"A local couple donated the money for that set," said Middle School coach Tami Hull, "3M has helped us a lot, too."

Hull hopes to gradually upgrade all of their robots to the newer model.

In September, TCEA designs a new challenge for the season. In addition to the rules in the 18 page challenge, Hull maintains a three-ring binder, with at least another 100 pages of rules and documentation required for the competition. 

Hull and Jennifer McKibben, as coaches, are slow to solve problems with the robots and computers, for the students, instead encouraging them to work through the trouble-shooting and solutions on their own. 

"When we take them to the competition, we basically just drop them off, " she said, "Once they arrive, we are not allowed to coach them or communicate with them in any way."

Hull added that, one year, one of the students looked in her direction, after successfully completing a challenge, and put up two thumbs to show his satisfaction. She said the team was almost disqualified. Robotics competition is serious business. Hull said some schools even contract professional engineers to coach their teams and that, once, they successfully competed against a team coached by a NASA engineer.

This season's challenge is called "Rubble Trouble and is intended to simulate and "Urban Search and Rescue" operation. The competition mat is marked with five distinct areas, each designated fro specific maneuvers. The challenge is to move checkers - red depicting food and medicine stores and black, rubble - to the appropriate areas. The teams try to pre-program their robots for as many contingencies as possible. 

All programming is done, prior to the competition, taking measurements of the challenge mat, calculating the speed, gear ratios, and wheel diameters, and programming the robots to make the maneuvers necessary to complete the challenge.

The students are provided a score sheet and must decide which of the specific challenges to attempt, in order to accumulate the highest possible number of points, within a two-minute time limit. Strategy is necessary, because some of the more difficult maneuvers may prove too difficult to complete and actually cost the team points.

Hull said, "We're building and learning, as we go."

She also described a strategy in forming the teams. Hull said she will identify one member who is able to focus well and keep the others on track, ensuring the team arrives to the challenge table with all of their equipment and that each takes care of their assigned tasks. 

"Team dynamics is very important."

The students and coaches seem to enjoy the program, equally. 

"Some students have gotten their own robots," Hull said, "They will send me pictures of using them to clean their rooms and just random things. I like to get those."

Hull added that the students learn a variety of thing from the robotics program and that it is beneficial for students to have experience with robotics, which they can note on college and job applications.

The Early Middle School Robotics teams competing in the Area competition are comprised of, Stooges - Thomas Kinnin, Kurtis Landry, Brent Grooms, and Kaitlin Godfrey; Walleee - Hannah Jones, Emily Jillson, Emily Rodriguez, Stacen Hinton, and Jeremiah Fowler; #Engineers - Taylor Hurt, Asa Welker, Aaron Koch, and Stephenye Lyon; Robo Bots - Nathan Mitchell, Bo Hunter, Morgan Kent, Trinity Tomlinson, and Hannah Hull.