The University of Southampton

ECS students and sixth-formers team up for global robotics challenge

Published: 13 January 2006

A group of second-year undergraduate students from the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, working with sixth-formers at Peter Symonds College, Winchester (PSC), make up one of only three UK teams to be taking part in the high-profile FIRST annual robotics competition, based in the United States.

The team has just begun the six-week build period to design their robot for the Toronto regional competitive event, which will be held on 30 March and 1 April.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) attracts around 1000 entries each year. The competition emphasises engineering, teamwork and collaboration between teams who have only six weeks to design and build their robot for a task that changes each year. This year’s challenge involves large 50kg robots autonomously shooting basketballs through hoops to score points.

The ECS students, Justyn Butler, Robert Spanton, Jeffrey Gough, and Howard Buck, formed the robotics group at PSC last October, and have been mentoring the sixth-formers since then, visiting the College each week. The group is working on a robotics kit for teaching engineering through practical experience.

‘We’re developing a versatile system of modules that stack together,’ said Justyn Butler, ‘so that a broad range of robots can be developed from one set of parts. This system allows new modules to be added easily and we have many ideas for new functionality.’

The system is suitable for people with any level of technical ability, and according to Justyn, a simple robot can be built with no background knowledge, while more adventurous students are free to develop their own ideas.

Not only are the team building their robot kits, and FIRST robot but they are also fundraising hard, with a target of £19000 to meet the cost of the entry fee, materials, tools, and transport for the team to take part in Toronto.

Adrian Pelling, Physics teacher at PSC, is enthusiastic about the project: ‘This is a great opportunity for students to deal with real-life problem solving,’ he said. ‘It’s all about being a good team, and our college students have had to show great resourcefulness and initiative in order to attempt this challenge.’

He is equally enthusiastic about the Southampton students’ involvement: ‘Our student mentors have been fantastic,’ he said. ‘Their technical knowledge and skill is impressive as is their ability to communicate with and motivate the team.’

For the students and sixth-formers the lists of tasks to be accomplished by the competition encompasses not just the design, build, programming and testing of the robots, but also raising sponsorship, organizing events, preparing publicity, meeting with company representatives, shipping the robot to Toronto, booking flights, ordering parts, organizing accommodation … an endless list, that still has to be carried out despite other pressing study commitments.

But as Adrian Pelling notes: ‘Education should be so much more than passing exams. The FIRST challenge develops a wide range of skills in our students that they and their future employers will find invaluable.’

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