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Mission complete! Robotics competition lands successfully for 2nd year

Even though the last bell for dismissal rang hours ago, the technology classroom and laboratory at the Sims Academy of Innovation and Technology in Winder, Georgia, continued to bustle with life as groups of fourth- and fifth-grade students worked to maneuver their Mars Rover robot across the surface of Mars.

With the help of South Korean company RoboRobo, Inc., the Barrow County School System and the University of Georgia College of Education's Research for the Advancement of Innovative Learning (RAIL) initiative, the 2nd Annual RAIL Robotics Competition sent 28 students from all eight elementary schools in Barrow County on a "mission" to Mars.

"This year, we have a brand new scenario the students have never seen before—the Mars lander," said Lee Bane, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) integration specialist for the Barrow County School System. "The challenges are a little more advanced than last year, but all of our elementary schools are represented, so we're excited about that."

The highest scoring teams from the school-level competitions were invited to compete at the districtwide-level RAIL championship held at the end of May. This is the first year both fourth and fifth grade students were eligible to compete.

The final challenge at Sims Academy required each team to generate code that would maneuver their Mars Rover robot on a terrain grid representing various landmarks on the planet, such as Mount Sharp and the Gale Crater. Students were tasked with programming their robots to move from the landing site to three specific points on the grid. At each point, the robots were required to perform a 360-degree panoramic turn before returning to the landing site.

Similar to the school-level competition, students were judged on a scoring rubric that weighed their strategy options, including how they maximized positive point maneuvers and minimized choices that would result in point deducting penalties.

"The students are gaining programming skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills because they aren't programming by themselves," said Bane. "The revision cycle is a huge component of this competition, and the students are not upset when it's not perfect the first time. They're learning perseverance and to not feel defeated if the first iteration doesn't work, and that's a skill that isn't a standard anywhere in math, science, English and social studies."

Jen McGregor, a doctoral student pursuing a degree in learning, design and technology, helped organize the event. With double the amount of participants this year, she said that teams were judged on multiple tasks—not just on how their robots performed. Additionally, each team had a chance to earn bonus points after the 90-mintute competition by discussing their approach to the challenge and how they worked together as a team.

"The task this year isn't overwhelming hard," said McGregor. "You'll see a lot of kids are really getting the hang of it, but they have to really look at their precision."

After the final scores were calculated, all school champions received certificates and awards. The top three performing teams, as well as all team coaches, were awarded with their own Roborobo robotics kits.

First place winners from Bramlett Elementary School

  • Students: Gage Kennedy and Drew Tullis
  • Coach: Todd Smith

Second place winners from Holsenbeck Elementary School

  • Students: Michael Hale and Micah Wilson
  • Coach: Mindy McCage

Third place winners from Auburn Elementary School

  • Students: Noah Anderson and Conrad Kesler
  • Coaches: Laura Herring and Ann Marie Miller
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