Lancaster robotics team soon to add 12th member -- after they build it

Lisa Merryman (middle), a coach for the Lancaster Elementary School robotics team, gives some of the team’s members a helping hand as they try to construct a robot during a team meeting in the school’s library on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Pictured are (from left) Joe Cobey, Kris Michaelson, Merryman, Alex Kelsey and Zach Bishop. The team, which is also coached by Vicky Platt, is in its first year at Lancaster.
Lisa Merryman (middle), a coach for the Lancaster Elementary School robotics team, gives some of the team’s members a helping hand as they try to construct a robot during a team meeting in the school’s library on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Pictured are (from left) Joe Cobey, Kris Michaelson, Merryman, Alex Kelsey and Zach Bishop. The team, which is also coached by Vicky Platt, is in its first year at Lancaster. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Dec. 1, 2016.

The Lancaster Elementary School robotics team currently boasts 11 members.

Shortly, its membership will increase by one. The incoming 12th member won’t be a fifth-grader, though, like everyone else on the team. In fact, the newcomer won’t even be human.

Indeed, the squad’s final member will be the robot that its preceding 11 members have been tasked with building. It’s the first time that students at Lancaster have had such an opportunity and librarian Vicky Platt and resource teacher Lisa Merryman made it possible.

“My son was in robotics (on) the high school team,” says Platt of Huntington North’s squad, Team THRUST. “So, I made connections with (team coordinator) Chris Elston and he shared it on my Facebook page that there was a grant.”

The grant was through TechPoint Foundation for Youth, an Indianapolis nonprofit organization that provides K-12 students with access to experiential learning opportunities meant to inspire the pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The cost of a robotics kit, plus a registration fee for the team, were covered by the grant.

To obtain the grant, Platt needed a certified teacher to apply for it. So, to that end, she reached out to Merryman.

“And she answered my call,” Platt says.

In September, Merryman completed a training session for the grant. After that, she and Platt were ready to get their robotics team started.

Platt and Merryman filled out the team’s ranks with fifth-graders that they believed would excel on it. The squad started meeting in November. Meetings are held once a week after school, in the library, with Platt and Merryman serving as coaches.

The team is building a Vex IQ Clawbot. Construction commenced at the squad’s meeting on Nov. 22. Merryman likens the process to building with Lego bricks, as the Clawbot is comprised of pieces that snap together. When finished, the Clawbot will have, appropriately en-ough, a large claw with articulating mandibles on a moving arm, connected to a four-wheel cart. Importantly, the robot will also feature electronic componentry that enables it to be remotely controlled. Those components will allow the team to drive the Clawbot, as well as operate its claw.

Once the robot is built, the team will start putting it through its paces on a playing field like the ones that will be featured at a competition the team will be attending on Feb. 11. The team will be tasked with transferring objects called “hexballs” from one side of the field to the other, with points being awarded based on where the hexballs are deposited. Additionally, teams will be challenged to balance their robots on a bridge at the end of the competition period, which lasts all of 60 seconds.

“You look at it and you go,” says an incredulous Merryman, “‘One minute to get all this stuff done?’”

The time crunch underscores the need for the team to be proficient using the Clawbot, states Merryman. To that end, she hopes to see the team eventually scrimmage against the only other elementary school robotics team in the county, at Andrews Elementary. While Lancaster will be competing at Doe Creek Middle School, in New Palestine, Andrews will test its mettle at a competition hosted by Klondike Middle School, in West Lafayette, on Jan. 28.

Lancaster’s team may only feature fifth-graders at present, but Merryman notes that the squad will become a club after the school’s winter break. At that point, any third, fourth or fifth-grader may join it.

The Clawbot won’t be the only robot students build this year, says Merryman. She and Platt have two other Vex IQ robots in their possession, purchased by the Parents at Lancaster School group. Merryman adds that there are already plans for the club to return next school year.

“It’s a two-year grant, so next year we’ll do the same kind of club and hopefully have a head start this time,” she says.

It’s all in service of introducing students to robotics earlier than ever before and reaping the benefits.

“They started the Lego robotics in the middle school,” notes Merryman. “And our high school has a very good robotics team. So, I thought, why not try it here? And give these kids the opportunity to build their skills each year.”

Even though robotics hasn’t been at Lancaster that long, Merryman says it’s already making an impact on students, as evidenced by a story a team member’s mother recently shared with her.

“Her son usually never says anything, what school was like,” Merryman relates. “And she said he talked the whole way home about robotics and was so excited.”