Area students prepare for Berkshire Robotics Challenge



Cameron Honiker is a LEGO-maniac. The sixth-grader at Williamstown Elementary School said his early childhood fascination with the popular construction toys got him involved in this weekend's annual Berkshire Robotics Challenge. He'll compete for one of the school's three teams named Legoheads.

"I've been playing with LEGOs since I was 4 or 5; that's how I learned how the pieces go together," he said.

Honiker is among the nearly 290 elementary and middle school youngsters on 35 teams from 25 local public and private schools vying for top honors on Saturday at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

The LEGO-based challenge, open to the public, begins shortly after 9 a.m. and is expected to last through mid-afternoon, according to the Berkshire Applied Technology Council.

BATC and Berkshire Community College jointly conduct the Robotics Challenge with the help of 24 local businesses and schools who sponsor the competitors.

The teams are comprised of 8- to 14-year-old boys and girls, coached by teachers or parents -- some also enamored by LEGOs when they were kids.

"LEGOs were my top toy growing up," said Brandon Harms, team coach at Crosby Elementary School in Pittsfield. "When I heard about [Robots Challenge], I was all over it and got involved."

The 14th annual competition involves students using computerized robots they have programmed to perform certain tasks on a 4-by-8 foot game board. The robots and game pieces are built from advance LEGO kits purchased by the teams through their individual sponsors. Each task is assigned a point value based on a degree of difficulty.

After three rounds, the eight teams with the highest cumulative point total of their best two rounds, advance to the championship bracket. The teams are seeded like a basketball tournament with quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.

This year's theme is "Senior Solutions." For the past three months, the teams have been exploring how senior citizens can stay healthy and independent by getting the robot to perform 14 tasks that include bowling, gardening, and choosing the right prescription bottle. The tasks are represented by LEGO pieces positioned throughout the game board.

Students said programming the robot can be the most frustrating part of the learning experience.

"If it's not perfect, you go back and [reprogram] it again," said Mikayla Moss, Crosby's team leader. "This teaches you to improvise."

When the robot finally performs well in practice, there's no guarantee it will work on Saturday. Eighth-graders Evan Wilkinson and Matt Funk of Team Tronix at Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield, found out the hard way in their three previous competitions.

"We had it figured out here, then the day of the competition, it didn't work," Wilkinson said.

"Last year, we had a dead motor before we started," said Funk.

Once the Robotics Challenge begins, teams have 21 2 minutes per round to complete the assigned tasks. Organizers are impressed how the students each year handle themselves during the event, especially if something goes wrong.

"They are calm and cool in a pressure environment and still able to problem-solve," said coordinator Dennis Johns.

For Cameron Honiker, all his team can do is "hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

To reach Dick Lindsay:,
or (413) 496-6233.


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