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East Longmeadow sixth graders compete in first-ever robotics competition

Dec. 26, 2013
By Chris Maza


EAST LONGMEADOW – A group of sixth graders are doing something in East Longmeadow no other sixth graders have ever done before – participating in international robotics competitions.

Peter van Buren, who advises the robotics team at East Longmeadow High School, and four students have launched a private team this year that built a robot designed to complete a task and compete against other teams from across the globe.

“We’ve had success with the high school program, so we decided to see if we could get something together on the middle school level,” he said. “Right now, it’s a private club and not affiliated with the schools because we wanted to make sure there was interest in the program.”

Four students – Sam van Buren, Aidan Butler, Giun-Shian Braverman and Brandon Nguyen – have stepped up to bring a high level of enthusiasm to the first middle school robotics team, an enthusiasm Peter van Buren hopes will spread.

Next year, he explained, a grant application would be submitted to VEX Robotics, the company that sponsors the competitions, to help implement it in the district in the hopes of creating multiple school-based teams.

Worldwide, there are only approximately 400 teams at this age level, compared to more than 10,000 at the high school level Peter van Buren said, which makes finding competitions somewhat challenging.

“Interest was slow to start, but it’s picking up steam,” he said.

Of late, the team has competed primarily in New Jersey where a grant has allowed for a large-scale competition.

The robot, the kids explained, was designed to operate within an arena, picking up as many plastic balls as it can and dropping them into a goal in a minute’s span.

“The robot we’ve been working on has a four-wheel chassis with two motors and a crane that scoops the balls over our robot and into the goal,” team member Sam van Buren explained.

So far, the team’s highest score is 53. At the time it was recorded, it was the top time in the world; now it ranks fourth and team members are constantly looking for ways to improve their creation.

“One of the biggest challenges has been the number of design flaws we’ve discovered,” Giun-Shian Braverman told Reminder Publications. “We’ve already gone through six or seven designs and this one still has some flaws.”

Sam van Buren admitted that when the team first starting working on their robot in August, they had some issues finding the time to commit, but now, meeting regularly, they have had meetings last five to six hours and once even had a marathon eight-hour session.

In addition to the skills challenge portion of the competitions, which involves the actual completion of the task, teams can earn awards based on programming and design, Sam van Buren said.

While ultimately an event with awards going to the best performers, the competition encourages interaction between teams, Aidan Butler added.

“It allows us to be communicative and develop team building skills,” he said.

Sam van Buren concurred, stating they have gotten several ideas on ways to alter their robot from opposing teams.

“A lot of them we just end up throwing out, though,” Braverman said, adding sometimes figuring out what doesn’t work is just as important as finding what does.

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