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Brave new world for Trinity students headed to Vex Robotics copetition

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 14. 2013 9:02PM
04/11/13 Joshua Martin, left, a senior, works in tandem with Jacob St. Germain, a junior, to dump half pound bean bags into a trough, as Trinity High's VEX Robotics team gets ready for next weeks competition in California. Thomas Roy/Union Leader 

MANCHESTER - Trinity High School students have been working on their competition robots since last fall and are still fine-tuning their devices in preparation for the VEX Robotics World Championships, being held Wednesday through Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center in California.

Trinity physics teacher Joseph Pouliot, who mentors the participants, is taking 18 students and the five most promising of the group's 12 robots to California.

Pouliot said the VEX competition, played on a 12-foot-square platform, began as part of the FIRST Robotics Competition, but has been an independent program since 2005.

For a number of years, Trinity competed in both FIRST and VEX competitions, but dropped out of FIRST two years ago.

"Instead of having a handful of kids involved with one (FIRST robot)," he said, "I can have 12 robots go to a competition on Saturday."

But the competition isn't just against other schools. The VEX participants at Trinity are constantly competing against one another, perfecting both their robots and their competition strategy.

Saturdays are for competitions involving other schools and begin in October. There are lots of those weekly contests, said Pouliot.

Trinity's five teams are among 11 teams from New Hampshire that will be competing in California this week. Also headed west are three teams from Pembroke Academy, one from Pinkerton Academy in Derry and two from Kennett High School in North Conway.

Trinity's teams have done well in past competitions and Pouliot expects they will do well again this year. In addition to the world competition, participants will find out what next year's game will be and will start brainstorming designs even before they leave California.

Over the summer, participants may get together to talk about design, but the serious work begins when school resumes. Pouliot said the designs start out being quite different, but don't stay that way. He said: "They all have to start with a different design in May," But, he said: "They go to the one (design) that works,"

But there are differences in the California-bound robots. One uses a roller to pick up beanbags, reversing the action to roll them into a trough, another scoops and drops, another lifts and dumps beanbags. One robot takes a dramatically different approach, spreading its "arms" over competitors' troughs to prevent other robots from depositing beanbags. It drops "feet" for stability, so it can't be easily dislodged.

It all looks like fun, but Pouliot said the mission of the VEX teams and competition is to find people interested in engineering. "We get them early," he said, and it works.

The group working on their robots last week was all male, but Pouliot said there are female participants and female teams.

Junior Jake St. Germain, 16, credits his sister's involvement for getting him into the program two years ago.

"My sister joined robotics," he said, and he was taking pictures, doing what he called the journalist thing. But what his sister was doing looked like it was more interesting, so he switched.

The design and strategy of his robot is: "Scoring fast and doing everything else well enough."

There are two people on each team, one to drive and one to pick up the half-pound beanbags and get them into the trough.

"The most I've picked up (in a load) is 20," said St. Germain.

The Manchester resident wants to attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute a popular destination for participants in the robotics program.

Pouliot said there are always students from the program who go to WPI. One year Trinity sent eight graduates to WPI, he said, joking that maybe he should get a commission.

Alex Millos, a 17-year-old junior from New Boston, said his robot is in its third iteration.

"We're close" to a final design, he said. The robot used a dump truck design, a tank tread (too slow), and now is a "shovel to shovel" design.

This is Millos' second year in the program. He likes the competitive aspect and he, too, plans to be a mechanical engineer. More immediately, he's looking forward to the California trip and Disneyland.

Four-year participant Joshua Martin didn't hesitate when his robot wasn't performing the way he wanted. Martin stepped away from the table and sat down at a laptop "to make a little test program," he said.

The Hooksett senior, 17, is headed for the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. "I want to be a mechanical engineer," said Martin. who is interested in programming mechanical systems.

Pouliot said the students raise money for their trip to California year-round, with projects ranging from a raffle to work at the New Hampshire International Speedway.

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