SHEFFIELD — Mount Everett Regional School's "Hyperspace" was in warp drive preparing for their debut competition on Sunday.
The newly formed middle school robotic team had just six weeks to build, program and test its six-wheeled automaton before going up against 39 other robotic competitors — all high school teams — in New Haven, Conn.
Given the time constraints and the stiff opposition, the all-7th-grade line-up finished 30th, winning one of five matches. More importantly, the techno-whiz kids gained valuable experience and confidence heading into next weekend's showdown with other middle school teams from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
"These kids got to see a lot of good robots and come away with ideas for the future," said team mentor Chris Thompson, following Sunday's robotic challenge.
Katheryn Barrett and her "Hyperspace" team members had no expectations other than to do their best.
"We'll take what we learn from this and use in our next competition," she said in an Eagle interview on Thursday.
The team heads to Framingham on Saturday for the VEX Robotics Southern New England Championship. VEX is similar to FIRST Tech Challenge, the robotics competition format Mount Everett has competed under at the high school level the past several years. In 2015, the school's "Higgs Bots" qualified for the FIRST Tech world championships in St. Louis, falling just short of making the playoffs and a chance to vie for the title.
As in FIRST Tech, VEX involves sophisticated robots performing singular tasks on a 12-by-12-foot model playing surface. This year, the VEX tasks include the robot getting giant cubes and rubber jax over a fence to land in the opponents scoring zone.
Randomly selected two-team alliances are formed for each round, working together to score points within a 2-minute time frame; FIRST Tech rounds last 30 seconds longer.
Unlike FIRST Tech, VEX offers a middle school division, prompting Mount Everett to accept a $2,500 private grant to fund the team. The grant didn't arrive until the end of 2016, four months after other VEX competitors began building their robots for the 2016-2017 season.
"Hyperspace" got to work right after Christmas school vacation, according to Thompson. He said as a condition of having a middle school team, it had to face high school teams at least once, hence Sunday's debut against more seasoned robotics teams.
Typical, the Mount Everett middle school students would be getting ready to vie for the Lego-based Berkshire Robotics Challenge, a mix of elementary and middle school teams. Thompson's students wanted to take their talents to a higher level.
"These kids have done Legos and were getting tired of it," he said. "I've had some 7th- and 8th-grade kids screaming for more powerful [robots.]"
Since early January, "Hyperspace" spent four hours each Thursday actually building two robots, working out the bugs and rebuilding them several times. The one used Sunday was less complicated and more reliable than it's sibling, according to the team.
"The weight distribution was changed, we made the arm longer and added more wheels to stabilize it," said Mikel Nourse.
Entering Sunday's event, the team wasn't sure the robot's programming and mechanisms were in sync.
The robot — and its human creators — apparently were up to the challenge.
"At the most basic level, the team produced a robot that stayed connected to the wireless control system and stayed together physically, not every team can say that," Thompson told The Eagle on Sunday afternoon.
Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233