SPRING HILL — About 30 third- to eighth-grade students crowded around three tables in Aaron Kinkaid's classroom at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, faced with the task of building robots out of Legos for an upcoming competition.
Perhaps the task doesn't sound that impossible. They do have kits containing brain blocks and sensors that can detect sound, color, contact and light. They have structural pieces and gears.
"Everything you need to build a fully functioning robot," Kinkaid said.
The students were more than happy to demonstrate. Three of them pulled a kit from a previous competition off a shelf to show how one of the robots can approach a barrier and stop or find a line of tape on the carpet and follow it.
"It senses the difference in light," said eighth-grader Gavin Clark, 13.
The group of future robot whizzes are the red, white and blue teams. All three are developing their own computer programs to use when programming their robots for the Dec. 17 competition in Valrico. They will be expected to have robots ready and able to do 15 missions.
Gavin, a member of the white team, gave some examples. One mission involves knocking a small ball off a small tire. The team wins four points if the robot knocks the ball to the mat.
Another mission is fishing. Four fish, three large and one little one, are situated on the same mat. The robot must be programmed to pick up the three large fish, while maneuvering around the little one and returning the bigger ones to the base.
"The baby fish is in the way," said another white team member, fifth-grader Maisoon Haddadin, 10.
A third mission is called cooking time. This is more of a fine motor skill. The robot must push the measure lever to the red zone. This is worth a whopping 14 points.
The purpose of all this, Kinkaid said, is to teach and inspire students to be technologists, able to compete in the global market. And, he explained, the competition is only partly about the robot.
The students will also have to be ready to answer questions about their programming. And they will have to be ready to recite the core values that go with the event. The group recites them at the beginning and the end of their meetings: "We work together," "We honor the spirit of friendly competition" and "We have fun." There are eight of these.
The competition is limited to 16 teams, with 10 members maximum. It is sponsored by the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) family of programs for various age groups. The competition Kinkaid's group is entering is the FIRST Lego League. The teams will have 2 1/2 minutes for their robots to complete all 15 missions.
The students are excited. Now they are brainstorming. Soon they will use their kits and the Lego building blocks to create their robots. The kits aren't free. Kinkaid has some he got with a grant. This year he is fundraising and accepting donations.
Kinkaid has two helpers who were with Sharks Robotics when they attended Nature Coast Technical High School. They are college students now. Nick Anatala, 20, is a freshman at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Aaron Holland, 19, is a freshman at the Art Institutes, which has campuses across the country. He is currently taking online classes.
"I did robotics in high school. I was on the high school team," said Holland. "I actually won first place in the Florida Regional. I love robotics, and I love helping the kids."
Anatala said he feels the same. "I like doing this," he said. "I like teaching. I've been in robotics for a long time."
The after-school robotics class is a program for Challenger's gifted students, but includes other students as well. Gavin said he is involved because he had been in Kinkaid's nine-week class and said, "I really enjoyed using the Lego program." He is excited about possibly using a gyroscope in the robot for directions.
Maisoon said she thought the robot might need claws. She likes being on the team.
"I wanted to learn about robotics," she said. "I thought it would be fun and it would also help me learn teamwork."
Maisoon's brother, seventh-grader Matthew, 12, is on his sister's team.
"I'm doing it because I was in (Kinkaid's) study hall last year," he said, "and I thought it would be fun."