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Tapping into their inner geek: Yarmouth robotics team finishes 13th in world event

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Tapping into their inner geek: Yarmouth robotics team finishes 13th in world event

YARMOUTH — When math teacher Paul Lamson-LaPlume organized the high school's first robotics team this year, he expected the students to take away tips for next year and have fun.

He did not expect them to win the state championship and a trip to the world competition.

"I figured they would have an opportunity to see what the competition was like, and we'd work on it again next year," he said. "But we ended up having a very capable little robot and a very determined team."

The team is made up of juniors Benji Jones, Sam Kapner, Nate Steinbock, Andrew DiMarco, and Alex Hensley, and one eighth grade student, Braden Becker.

Lamson-LaPlume – known to his students as "L-squared" – had experience with robotics competitions when he taught physics at Boston University Academy. He thought it would be an exciting challenge for interested students at Yarmouth High School, so he gathered a group of students and signed up for the state competition.

The team, called Infinite Improbability Robot, traveled to Orono in late March to compete against 17 other teams in the Maine Vex Robotics Championship. Although they started with a malfunctioning robot, by the end of the day they were one of the tournament champions.

"Mandelbot," the team's robot, was created from a kit provided by competition sponsor Vex Robotics. The competition consisted of a square playing field, where two alliances of two teams each competed in matches consisting of 20-second autonomous play followed by two minutes of driver-controlled play. The winning robot wins by moving as many large balls as possible to its side of the field and by "locking up" smaller balls in triangular goals.

Team member Alex Hensley said the robot was not working at the beginning of the day, but by the fourth round, the team had resolved the robot's problems.

"We are a close-knit group of friends who have a natural affinity for this sort of activity," Hensley said. "We were able to see what wasn't working and fix it quickly."

With the help of their alliance, a home-school team from Oakham, Mass., the Yarmouth team was able to advance in the competition and qualify to compete in the World Championship in Dallas last month.

Lamson-LaPlume said without the help of their alliance and parent support they would never have advanced to the world competition. He said Jim Milan, optics engineer at Idexx Corp., donated Vex robotics parts, and Bath Iron Works and Fairchild Semiconductor contributed financially.

"These students had such positive attitudes. Not once did these guys complain," he said. "They were mature, diligent and showed determination."

Hensley said the Maine competition was fun, but the world event was "mind-blowing."

"To walk into this huge convention center in Dallas and see so many robots and so many people with similar interests was amazing," he said. "It was great. There was nothing else like it."

Lamson-LaPlume said the students made it to the world competition because of their hard work, not his help or guidance.

"They did this on their own," he said. "It's a dream of mine to have them tap into this vibe, and they were able to experience it first-hand."

The world competition was a three-day event with about 400 teams. Because there were so many matches, teams were split into groups of 100.

Yarmouth came in 13th.

"It was unbelievable," the Lamson-LaPlume said. "The competition is about tapping into your geek energy. It was like a sports event for those who enjoy math and science."

Hensley said the event was an opportunity to see other robot designs, to make friends from around the world, and to promote their robot so other teams would want to align with them.

"This was about more than robots," Hensley said. "It is about making connections and talking to people, being outgoing and social."

The team members said they want to compete again next year, and are hopeful more people will participate. Lamson-LaPlume said he expects there to be more interest in the coming years.

"These kids rose from the absolute bottom," Amy Bongard, the school's assistant principal, said. "It is their first year and they went to Dallas to compete against teams from all over the world. What a great success story this is."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net