By Konstantine Fekos
Judges spurred on Cochranton High School’s mechanical competitor Shockwave despite a last-minute malfunction that caused its weapon to fail and billow white wisps of smoke in the final hour of the seventh annual RoboBOTS competition late Saturday afternoon at Meadville Area Senior High School.
Shockwave rode its namesake to an undefeated winning streak, trumping Union City Area High School’s Flatliner, a wedge-shaped robot that pulled an upswing from the elimination bracket to second place in the double-elimination tournament sponsored by the National Tooling and Machining Association’s northwestern Pennsylvania chapter.
“We were relieved,” Cochranton student Adam Field said after the judges’ ruling. “We got lucky. It feels really good.”
Flatliner entered the arena battle-scarred from its long journey to the 69th match, but refused to kick the bucket, instead spinning circles around its opponent, which hardly suffered a scratch throughout the day, only coming close to a bitter defeat when its drum weapon failed to rotate in the final match.
Union City’s team, competing for its second year, watched with a focused intensity as its battling BOT suffered a series of flips and chips, having been thrown up into the air while its exterior was chipped away.
Shockwave initially blasted through its competition until its last fight, when the metallic gladiators kept getting stuck on one another, causing several time-outs in which the referee intervened and disengaged them.
“I’m completely proud of the way they handled themselves,” said Chris Yost, Cochranton’s team coach, who overcame his initial worry after hearing the final outcome. “I can’t wait to see how much further they go.”
Cochranton students agreed Shockwave may not have lasted the full duration of the match on full juice, but assured themselves they could drive it to the end with a solid, defensive stance.
“It’s about strategy and a good driver,” said Cochranton team member Kali Miller. “The design came about through lots and lots of research.”
In addition to first place, her team took home the special award for Best Documented, having fulfilled to the fullest potential the competition’s new requirement for engineering designs to be submitted pre-competition.
“This is the first year we required every team to have a documentation package, just like in the real world,” said Tami Adams, former NTMA director. “If they planned to use the same BOT as last year, they had to submit a re-engineering plan to prove its new modifications.”
Despite the roaring crowd and each team member’s adrenaline rush fueled by clanging steel, RoboBOTS sponsors and coordinators strive first and foremost to interest local students in technical education careers.
With 35 teams from 19 schools competing for more than 1,400 spectators, event coordinator Brian Deane of NuTec Tooling Systems Inc. and Ken Kuhn, NTMA president and owner of Kuhn Tool & Die Co., are confident the point gets across.
“It’s an incredible event,” Kuhn said. “We’ve had a pretty good buy-in, not just from tool shops, but from the community, which really stepped up to make this event happen.”
Despite the action and excitement in the RoboBOTS arena, Kuhn believes the most important happenings occur in the teams’ surrounding work stations.
“By working through problems and pulling together to make this happen, the students learn the value of one another,” he added. “Hopefully we can draw a couple of kids into machining while we’re at it.”
Deane and Kuhn agreed this year’s event has produced exciting bouts and a turnout testament to the event’s ever-growing popularity.
“It’s been a great day,” echoed Vernon Township Supervisor Tim Mullen, who coached one of Meadville High School’s six teams. “Even in the height of competition, all these kids are helping each other. Teams helping teams; that’s the important thing.”
“It’s a smart sport; these kids are cheered like athletes,” said Congressman Mike Kelly, translating students’ excitement into good news for the machine industry’s future. “When it gets recognition like this, we all win.”
In addition to local bragging rights, first- and second-place teams have the option to advance to the National Robotics League Championships in Indianapolis, travel expenses paid.
Conneaut Area High School (CASH) students made the trip last year after winning the RoboBOTS tournament with spinning BOT Terminator, which entered Saturday’s battle matchups, only to be wiped out by The Eraser, a product of their younger counterparts from Conneaut Lake Middle School.
“It was pretty cool; they got us up in the air,” said Mike Shimkanin, CASH coach. “There’s a lot of luck involved. You never know what can happen.”
The Eraser scrubbed its way through the elimination bracket to place third overall. Not too shabby, considering the first-time BOT-builders didn’t even think they’d make it that far.
“We got lucky in the second round,” said Griffen Osborn of Conneaut Lake Middle School.
Despite losing the title, CASH student Justin Sobieski says the best part about competing is “being able to design things, see other designs and improve on your own work.”
“You can’t forget the battle, too,” teammate Jeremy Dygert said.
Team coaches often find sponsorship and support the most significant aspect of the event and key to its continuance.
“The tool companies put their time and thousands of dollars into this event,” Shimkanin said. “Without the support of the tool companies and the NTMA, none of this would be possible.”
Also deserving credit are the faculty members who spend months of afterschool hours mentoring and coaching their students through the arduous process of planning, preparation, ordering and construction.
“Most of these teachers put in extra hours,” said Conneaut Lake Middle School coach Jeff Hans. “That’s a lot of time and energy keeping kids on track, but it’s all worth it in the end.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.