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Dutchtown hosts first-ever robotics tourney

Special Photo 
Dutchtown High School plans to host its first-ever VEX Robotics Regional Competition on Saturday, which will include about a dozen middle and high school robotics-engineering teams from around metro Atlanta.

Special Photo Dutchtown High School plans to host its first-ever VEX Robotics Regional Competition on Saturday, which will include about a dozen middle and high school robotics-engineering teams from around metro Atlanta.

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

About 100 students from around metro Atlanta will travel to Hampton this weekend to showcase their engineering talents.

The pre-engineering students -- making up about a dozen middle and high school robotics teams in Coweta, DeKalb, Forsyth, Fulton, and Henry counties -- are scheduled to compete in Dutchtown High School's first-ever, VEX Robotics Regional Competition Tournament on Saturday.

The tournament is sponsored by VEX Robotics of Innovation First, Inc., and is the first competition of its kind in Henry County, according to Anterro Graham, Dutchtown's pre-engineering instructor. The tournament will be held in the school's gymnasium, at 149 Mitchell Road, from 8 a.m., until 4 p.m.

The competition involves an obstacle course, in which robots, built by teams of students, are required to perform certain tasks and maneuvers, Graham said. The students' work in building the robots is judged based on various engineering criteria in programming, architecture, and functionality.

There were three such tournaments last year, between Florida and Georgia, according to Rick Folea, the regional support manager for the VEX Robotics. This year, there are 18 events throughout the two-state region, including Dutchtown's robotics event.

Folea said interest in robotics has grown since 2004, when VEX Robotics created the international robotics competition. He said participation in his region has increased by 400 percent, over the years, to involve hundreds of pre-engineering students.

"It's more than just building robots," said Folea. "The competitions build team skills, business skills, and organizational skills, in addition to all that other stuff."

He said the competitions are held in the months between October and April, each year, and are designed primarily to help connect the academic study of engineering concepts with their practical, real-world applications.

"This competition is an adjunct to that [academic study] to give them a goal and a reason to want to learn this stuff," Folea said. "And all of a sudden, it means something to them. I say, sometimes, that this is the only sports competition that these kids can participate in, in school, where every kid can go pro."

Students are given a different robotics challenge every year, at VEX Robotics tournament events held around the world, added Graham, the instructor at Dutchtown.

He said this year's events encompass the theme, "Clean Sweep," in which student teams create robots whose mission is to launch different color balls into an opponent's field. The tournament-like contest rewards first-place to the team with the least amount of balls left in their field by the opposing team.

Graham hopes his two Dutchtown teams do well at its home venue this year. Last year, the team placed fourth and sixth respectively at the state's lone robotics competitions in Rockdale and DeKalb counties.

He said winning teams in regional tournaments of more than 12 teams earn automatic invitations to international competitions. Teams can also earn points, based on their tournament placing.

The points, he added, count toward qualifying for the 2010 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship, held April 22-24, in Dallas, Texas. The international championship, now in its seventh year, will include top teams among more than 2,000 middle and high school teams worldwide.

"The end result of all this is that these kids will learn mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and manufacturing engineering, and they don't even know it," said Graham. "Our hopes are to get exposure in our area about robotics, so students can get excited about robotics as a career path."

Graham said more and more students are benefiting from the 5-year-old pre-engineering program at Dutchtown. The program serves 120 students in grades nine through 12, on four different skill levels.

However, few young women seem to be interested in pursuing potential professions in engineering fields, and none are currently on Dutchtown's robotics teams, he said.

"There's been a large push across the country to get young ladies, as well as young men, into non-traditional educational programs," he said. "For instance, we could have more men in nursing and more women in architectural design. Out of 120 students in the program, 10 percent are young ladies. I would like to increase that by 20-30 percent."