On Saturday, BFA Fairfax’s Robotics and Engineering Club, affectionately known as Team Poutine, participated in the 3rd Annual Aiken K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge (formerly known as the TASC challenge) at UVM, hosted by UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.
So, what’s with the name? Last year, when we were rebooting the team, students proposed a variety of options for a fun, new name. Of all the options, Team Poutine came out on top, with The Narwhals coming in a close second. In fact, it was close enough that we worked out a compromise: we adopted the moniker, Team Poutine, as our official name, and the Narwhal as our mascot.
My wife is a whimsical artist, and quickly needle-felted a Narwhal mascot for the team, who attends the events with us, and loves to ride upon the contraptions the team creates. Of course, the Narwhal needed a name, and only one name fit the bill: Poutine the Narwhal.
But why Poutine? Isn’t poutine just greasy, cheesy fries? No. Poutine is innovation. Poutine is taking components that don’t necessarily seem like they would go together at first glance–cheese, gravy, french-fries–and trying it anyway. Poutine is creating something new and glorious by reconfiguring the mundane.
This year’s challenge was to design a launcher for ping pong balls that would be both accurate and flexible, in order to get the balls through a variety of targets, from rolling on the ground to flying through the air, to banking shots in from opposing angles.
Each team randomly selected the targets they would have to work with at the start of each match by pulling tiles from a bag. The team then had time to strategize regarding how to best place those targets for the match, before entering their set-up period.
Scored ping pong balls were worth different point values based on how far away from the launcher they were set up, and whether the target was an easy or a hard target. Further points would be awarded if a team got closer to balancing the number of balls scored through all of the targets.
Teams from middle and high schools across Vermont participated in the challenge this year, with a wide range of innovative means of approaching the challenge, from pitching style machines, to catapults, to flick’em up contraptions and even an impromptu human-breath powered launcher in the finals when one of the other teams’ original designs malfunctioned.
Students at BFA Fairfax started working together to innovate, design, and create their contraption early this fall, as soon as the challenge rules were released. After a brainstorming session early on, we had a number of design ideas that students wanted to pursue. One of the very first ideas the team tried out was to use a catapult for the challenge. Ultimately, though, after looking more closely at the challenge specifications and discussing the pro’s and con’s of the different possibilities further, the team landed on creating a pitching-machine inspired launcher, with a pair of powered wheels spinning in opposite directions to shoot the balls forward.
The initial prototype the students designed was created entirely from parts that we already had available from previous challenges the team had participated in. The team quickly discovered, however, that we had never faced a challenge like this one before. The motors that we had were all geared much more for torque than speed. You can see the first prototype in action (or inaction) here.
After some research on YouTube and Amazon, the team was able to find some new motors within our budgetary constraints that were rated for +/- 18,000RPM, and a potentiometer to adjust and control the speed of their rotation. And of course, as Uncle Ben would tell Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. With the new motors, the team quickly discovered that they needed a new way to attach them to the device, and perhaps just needed a new device altogether. As team-member, Robbie Dearborn put it, “I learned that the materials you use can change the entire plan. Some materials give you more opportunities to build in different directions; to design and build the concept you really want to build.” So, back to the drawing board they went, and then it was time to break out the 3D printer, saws, and screwdrivers!
Team Poutine learned the value of good communication throughout the design process, and the competition as well. But the actual competition wasn’t the only component. The team also presented their engineering design story to a panel of judges, reflecting on the entire process from start to finish.
When all was said and done, Team Poutine had climbed the ranks to second place overall, out of roughly thirty teams from across the state, and brought home a fun, new robotics kit to put to use for future challenges! But that’s not all they brought home with them. Team Poutine brought home a renewed sense of pride in our school and a lot of great ideas and positive energy.
And this morning, they were right back at it, switching gears and starting fresh to prepare for what’s next: the FIRST Tech Challenge in Essex this February! This team of student innovators cannot wait to move innovation forward.
Today’s guest post was contributed by Harold Vance III, the Flexible Learning Coordinator at BFA Fairfax. He tweets at @SensingPlace.