Homeschoolers get robotic workout
Creeping across the carpet on tiny Caterpillar treads, 14-year-old Nate Duerksen's latest robotic creation whirred its way to the center of his family's living room.
A holiday model, the small-scale heavy machinery was adorned with a sprig of artificial greenery in front; a shoebox-sized box wrapped in shiny paper sat on the back.
With one tap on Nate's remote control, the box lid flipped open and a miniature Christmas tree erected itself, inciting a good laugh from members of the Johnson County Homeschool robotics team gathered Friday night at the Duerksen's home for the group's weekly meeting.
The robot was typical of the family's favorite Christmas gifts.
"They open themselves," laughed team member Shawn Thomas.
Since moving to De Soto from Wichita less than a year ago, Barb and Noel Duerksen have pioneered the Johnson County team. Comprising their two sons, Nate and 16-year-old Aaron, and a handful of like-minded robot junkies, the team hopes to find more homeschool members and introduce robotics competition to area public schools, too.
Thomas, 15, traveled with his dad, Steve Thomas, to the Duerksen's from Wellsville for the meeting. Howard Cripe and his son, Wesley, 15, came in from Olathe.
But things like Nate's holiday robot, which was made with Lego MindStorms, are just for fun. The group's main task is using teamwork to build original robots from scratch for competitions.
Competitions, sponsored by BEST Robotics, Inc., are held annually in Wichita. BEST, or Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology, is a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring students through participation in sports-like science- and engineering-based robotics competition.
Not enough time, not enough money and working with people who rub you the wrong way were all challenges students overcome in robotics competition, Barb said. Beyond that, there's a use for almost every talent.
"The kids are learning all kinds of real-life skills," she said. "It's just a perfect microcosm of the real world."
The Duerksens were active with their homeschool robotics team in Wichita, where many public school teams participated as well, they said. Their new Johnson County homeschool team saw its first competition in October.
This year's state game day was Oct. 23 in Wichita. Each competition includes two parts.
First is the game.
Well before each competition, each team is given a set of materials, constraints and instructions for what its robot must be able to do.
Parents or teachers may guide students somewhat, but eligible robots must be constructed and operated entirely by teens.
Second is the multi-faceted competition for the BEST award.
Scoring for the BEST award is based on a team's oral presentation, a project notebook -- Johnson County's book included 30 pages of technical writing and 20 pages of appendices -- a tradeshow-type booth, spirit and sportsmanship on game day, and how well the robot performed in the game.
But this year's competition task -- picking up balls and replacing them into designated areas -- required a stationary machine with a long, unwieldy arm.
After their round-up in the Duerksen's living room, the homeschool team members attending the meeting donned coats, grabbed flashlights, and made their way through the dark to the Duerksen's backyard shop for the meeting's real purpose.
Their off-season mission? Create something more enticing to demonstrate for prospective robotics competitors -- a show-bot.
Not even the most highly advanced robot can run on "mystic forces," as one member joked, so the group set to work brainstorming a plan.
The show-bot will use battery power and a remote control and travel at a speed of about two feet per second. It can be built with regular robot fare, like PVC pipe, plywood, ball bearings, scrap metal and even duct tape, Noel added.
Noel works in avionics, and Aaron and Nate said they'd been playing with techie-toys for as long as they could remember.
Starting with simple Legos, the boys' contraptions quickly grew up.
"Things got more complicated," Aaron said. "We started wanting to animate stuff."
At Friday's meeting, the boys conversed eagerly and easily with other team members about how things work and various schools of thought on the true definition of a robot.
Barb, for one, made no pretenses about the nature of her family's favorite hobby.
"We tell nerd jokes around here," she said.