EDUCATION: Engineering a future

Robotics Club fosters BFA students’ interest

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Staff Writer

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Without robotics club I most likely wouldn’t want to be an engineer.

- Juliana Bortz, BFA student

ST. ALBANS — For the first time, Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans (BFA) sent a student-designed and built robot to a U.S. First competition at the University of Vermont. Although they didn’t win, they were invited by another team to be their ally in the final round of competition.

Founded by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), U.S. First holds team competitions in robotics around the world for students of all ages.

In the case of BFA team co-captain Juliana Bortz it worked. Bortz will attend Clarkson University in the fall to study engineering. “Without robotics club I most likely wouldn’t want to be an engineer,” she said.

At the start of her senior year, she was interested in the subject, but wasn’t certain if she should pursue it. Her experience with robotics club was the deciding factor, Bortz explained. “In robotics club you got real hands on experience,” she said.

The team’s other captain, Matt Tanneberger, said he had already decided on a career in engineering, but robotics club reinforced his decision. “I just like the invention and design process,” he said. Tanneberger, too, will be attending Clarkson this fall.

U.S. First supplies the brains for the robot and a kit with some parts when a team signs up for the competition, explained Pete Symula, a teacher in the BFA design department.

But to truly make the robot work students must fabricate or purchase additional parts. BFA students met with local manufacturers to raise funds and request mentors.

“It was nice to see there were so many engineering places in St. Albans,” said Bortz, particularly since she plans to return to St. Albans to work.

Working with the mentors also gave students a peek into what engineers do, suggested Tanneberger. “We really appreciated their help,” he said.

Three former BFA and Northwest Technical Center students who now work at Superior Technical Ceramics served as mentors for the team. Their expertise was critical at the competition when the robot’s lifting mechanism broke. “If they didn’t know what they know we’d never have made it,” said Bortz.

Other teams also offered assistance, providing spare parts, said Bortz.

The robot needed to be able to hang from a bar, raise a flag, and push or lift blocks. “We didn’t quite master the picking up part,” said Bortz. “Hanging was our expertise.”

The team raised about $8,000 for parts and other necessities, but also fabricated parts using BFA’s three-dimensional printer and laser engraver, explained Bortz.

About 20 students contributed to the project, and 15 who attended the competition, including five female students. BFA had more female team members than any other team, said Bortz. Four of those young women are graduating this year, and three plan on studying engineering while the fourth wants to study computer science, explained Bortz.

Asked what was the most challenging part of building the robot, Tanneberger said, “It’s either getting everybody to agree on the same idea or programming.”

Working collaboratively gave students a change to develop leadership and communication skills, according to Bortz. “There was a lot of having to talk the team and work through problems,” she said.

“I learned a lot that is directly connected with engineering and life skills,” said Tanneberger.

The team placed 12th overall. “For our first year, I think we did pretty good,” said Tanneberger.