The Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition competed in a national championship Saturday, and they made Decatur proud.
The 40-member team, a collection of remarkable geeks from Austin and Decatur high schools, placed second in the overall BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) competition. They won the only award for programming, the Founder’s Award for Creative Design, first place in marketing and second place for robot robustness and computer-assisted drawing.
The most enjoyable part of the build-up to the nationals was the team’s off-the-wall decision to totally re-design its robot, despite the fact it had won them victories at the local and regional level. One of the tasks in the robotics competition was to move golf balls from a bin on the robot to a collection point several feet away on the playing field. The way everybody handled the task, including DARC through the regionals, was to capture the balls in a bin, move the bin with the robot to a collection point, at which time a (human) spotter would sort the balls.
The DARC team figured out that gravity could save it a time-consuming step. The robot they built for the nationals had an internal spiral slide. Instead of dropping into a robot-carried bin, the balls fell onto the slide. They gathered speed, then shot over the playing field to a ramp the robot had placed at the collection point.
Whether the contraption — which wowed the judges — gave them extra points for the competition itself is anyone’s guess. Certainly it was a factor in snagging the creativity award.
I was seriously impressed that DARC members pushed for, and its mentors acquiesced, to a late-season design change. It was an impetuous move that went against conventional wisdom.
Decatur needs leaders who can think outside the box, whether the topic is robots or taxes or immigration or poverty. Let’s hope that some of these young, twisted thinkers find their way back to Decatur after college. We don’t just need intellect, we need off-the-wall brilliance. We need the DARC side.