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Robots to the rescue at Winston-Salem family event

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(From left) Noah Campbell (6) and his brother Paxton Campbell (3) watch as a robot released airplane makes a landing during the setup and robot assembly phase of the 2014 Robot Fun Run at the atrium of the Wake Forest Biotech Place in Winston-Salem, N.C., Friday Jun. 27. (Bruce Chapman/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Like any good coach, Will Armentrout, offered a mix of encouragement and practicality, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“I told them, ‘Guys, you’re spending way too much on one thing,’” he said.

Armentrout, a rising seventh-grader at Hanes Middle School, was trying to get his team of engineers from Inmar on track at the Robot Fun Run, a robotics challenge that pairs members of middle school LEGO League teams with professionals from local science, technology and engineering businesses.

And like any good coach, Armentrout graciously celebrated his team’s victory.

“I’m just going to say, it felt pretty great,” he said.

This was the fourth year for the Robot Fun Run, and its second to be hosted in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

Eight teams walked into the building Friday morning, were handed a robot and a box of LEGOs and told they’d be competing in four hours.

Each team does have the benefit of a middle school coach. The students bring experience with the robots and the challenges, teaching their adult counterparts what they’ve learned in LEGO League competition throughout the year.

“It was fun teaching them how to program (the robots),” said Zaire Crayton, a rising seventh-grader at Wiley Middle School who worked with the SciWorks team.

About 300 students participate in LEGO league during the school year. There are 28 teams among Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ 17 middle schools. Each middle school has at least one team, thanks to a sponsorship by Cook Medical. The Indiana-based company donates about $15,000 each year to purchase mats and kits for each school. Neil Saunders, a senior engineer at Cook, said the company hopes programs like LEGO league that engage kids in science, technology, engineering and math now will cultivate more professional engineers in the future.

While the competition feels like a game – one with very intense players – it takes serious skill to participate.

Jeff Marshall, a manufacturing engineer with Caterpillar, said he and his colleagues use similar skills in their jobs every day.

“It’s not that much different from what they do,” he said. “It’s just on a different scale.”

Marshall said the building, programming and testing boils down to one thing: problem solving.

The challenge theme this year was “natural disaster.” Teams had to build and program their robots to navigate a set course and complete tasks, like moving and rescuing “people” and “pets,” sending a cargo plane flying down a runway and getting an ambulance into position. Teams programmed their robots to set off levers on the course that release the plane and send “waves” rolling across the mat. By constructing attachments for their robots with LEGO pieces, they can knock over towers or scoop up people.

Each team got five runs on the course, each lasting two and a half minutes.

They had a few minutes to make adjustments in between.

The Inmar team’s strategy to knockout a few quick tasks at the start and then save the remaining time for a longer run that accomplished several tasks and pulled in big points proved to be best on the day. They took bragging rights and the competition’s coveted LEGO trophy.

The team from Carolina Liquid Chemistries lost what had been a close afternoon of competition. They had been tied with Inmar until Inmar posted the day’s highest score on their last run.

The Wake Forest Biomedical Engineering team had home field advantage, with the competition taking place just outside their office in Biotech Place, but it wasn’t enough for the team to improve on last year’s second place result. They finished third this year.