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Ridgely Middle students headed to world robotics championship in April

When he was younger, Arman Farazdaghi played with Legos.

"I designed things that didn't work. I thought, I'll design something that works," said Arman, a 12-year-old seventh-grader who created the software program that operated a robot for the robotics club at Ridgely Middle School.

"I started building things when I was a kid — a chest, a wagon. I like designing and building," said Cindy Jia, 11, a sixth-grader who helped to design and build the robot.

"Before joining the robotics club, I designed one robot from parts I ordered online," said seventh-grader Noah Zipin, 13, and a team leader.

At Ridgely Middle in Lutherville, the robotics club is a double winner. Two of its teams won the state championship this year and its members, including the three students, are headed to the world championship in Anaheim, Calif., April 23-26.

"The whole school is very proud and excited," said Greg Kallaur, technology education teacher who co-coaches the Ridgely robotics club and its teams with Kathy O'Melia, a special education and science teacher.

The club is open to all students. Its 40 members, split two-thirds boys, the rest girls, meets weekly. For competitions, they are divided into two groups: metal and plastic. The older students usually work with metal parts, the younger with easier-to-assemble plastic. Kallaur subdivides the teams into smaller working groups with three to four students in each.

Sponsored by Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, a STEM program for elementary and middle schools, the VEX IQ Challenge is on-going. Teams compete locally and regionally to get to the state championship.

The VEX games change yearly, although all involve designing and building a metal or plastic robot to perform certain functions within a time period. The robots are small — the metal ones typically 15 inches by 18 inches by 18 inches; the plastic ones measure about two-thirds that size. Set on a platform, the robot moves on wheels; an extendable arm ends in a claw-like "hand" to grasp and move objects. It is remote-controlled.

"There are engineering challenges," Kallaur said of the games.

"The goal is to give the kids experience working with technology and programming. They go through the engineering design process. They brainstorm, research, design and test," he said. "It's as close to the real world as you can get in a classroom setting."

This year's two winning teams are the F team, which won the state championship in the plastic division, and the G team, which won a design award that qualifies it to compete in the world championship.

Arman joined the robotics club this year. As leader of the G team, he not only designed the software but helped to build the robot. "I have a passion for design and engineering," he said.

Cindy has participated in two other state competitions, "but we didn't win," said Cindy, a member of the G team. "This is exciting."

Yuma Sasaki is the third member of the G team. The 11-year-old sixth-grader likes to help his father, an engineer, tinker with old cars.

"I really got into it," said Yuma, who attended a robotics summer camp. He designed the team's robot, helped to build it and drove it during the state contest.

On the F team, Gautam Maybhate, 11, a sixth-grader, became interested in robotics in the fourth grade. "I do a lot with engineering at home," said Gautam, who helped with designing and building and also maintained all the required records.

Ben Yin, 11, and a sixth-grader, was involved in programming and engineering the robot. "Mr. Kallaur says I have 'the knack,'" said Ben, making quote marks with his fingers. "I have a curiosity about things."

F team leader Noah has designed and built three robots on his own. One of them, called a Claw Bot, was more complex than the robot the team created for the competition.

During the state competition, "I switched driving the robot with Ben," he said.

For this year's state championships, Ridgely's teams competed against more than 120 teams from middle and high schools around the state. In the world championship next month, they will be competing against teams from all over the U.S. and abroad. Previous world championships have had teams from Brazil, China, Mexico and New Zealand, Kallaur said.

Ridgely's robotics club has sent teams to the world championship before, in 2010 and 2011. But this year's teams are among the club's youngest members, sixth- and seventh-graders.

"It bodes well for the future of the program," Kallaur said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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