Cape Elizabeth High School robotics team readies for road show

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CAPE ELIZABETH — High school sophomores Anthony Castro and Luke Dvorozniak are perfecting the scientific version of the basketball pick and roll.

As members of team 56A of the Cape Robotics program, the two and senior Ethan DiNinno have designed, built and programmed a squat, wheeled fabrication of metal, wire and motors soon to be competing for global glory in Anaheim, Calif.

From April 19-21, the team will compete against Chinese, Canadian, Malaysian and American teams in a tournament where robots will maneuver a 12-by-12 course while picking up and stacking blocks and balls.

Even before they compete in California, the team has impressed teacher Evan Thayer, who has overseen the growth of the district robotics program.

“They teach me stuff,” he said about the two students who have competed nationally and internationally for three years.

Working through a program created by Texas-based VEX Robotics, which supplies robotics equipment and competition guidelines, the Cape Robotics program has middle and high school teams competing in state, national and international competitions.

Thayer is working to expand the program to include elementary school students, and fifth- and sixth-graders get beginning lessons by building motorized Lego vehicles.

Community support for Cape Robotics is provided by volunteers Tim Jones and Eric Jensen, Thayer said. Jones, who works at AdvancePierre (formerly Barber Foods), has also coached ice hockey and enhances team building and strategy, Thayer said.

Jensen is a retired programmer who adds practical advice to projects.

But Thayer said much of the decision making is left to the students.

Castro and Dvorozniak have teamed up since seventh grade, and said they have learned as much from their failures as they have from their success.

In the high school classroom where they design, build and test robots, they taped four spindly metal strips to the wall.

The pieces were once used as axles, but could not withstand the torque of a robotic movement.

“Now they are drill bits,” Castro joked as he held up an axle twisted halfway up its shaft.

Early immersion in the mechanics, design and programming is important, Thayer said.

“It is so essential to start in middle school,” he said. “These are critical years.”

This year, Castro and Dvorozniak designed a robot with arms to reach about 3 feet high and an inner chamber to store blocks and balls, but have kept their work simple, they said.

The robot is controlled by two gaming consoles. One directs scooping and dropping the objects, the other directs motion. On controller contains a flash drive with the codes written to operate the robot.

“You don’t want to make it so complex you can’t drive it,” Dvorozniak said.

With relatively simple objectives for the championship, it is important to design something that works effectively, even if it is not flashy. That is part of what Thayer hopes students gain from the robotics experience.

“You have to understand the game first, to think about what you want it to achieve in this environment.” he said.

Thayer said the robotics program is great for developing minds already attuned to physics, mechanics and digital engineering. But the program also opens the eyes of students who might not have imagined themselves able to create practical solutions from a maze of wires, wheels, frames and motors.

“We want to see them apply academics to problem solving, even if it means learning how not to break a $20 motor,” Thayer said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Using battery powered controls, Cape Elizabeth sophomores Anthony Castro, left and Luke Dvorozniak manuever their robot while preparing for next month’s world championship competition in southern California.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.