Tech Ninjas robotics group gaining experience and recognition

  Members of the Tech Ninja Team based at the
  Homewood Science Center are, from left, Jeremy
  Wesley of Homewood, Ernest Woods of Hazel
  Crest, Kaylin Matthews of Flossmoor and Bill
  Colton of Homewood.
(Photos by Marilyn 
  Thomas/H-F Chronicle)
Tech Ninjas are designing, building and racing robots.
  The Tech Ninja robot moves
  off its red balance stone and
  into position to pick up a
  cube, called a glyph.

These young science enthusiasts are earning a reputation for their robotic skills as Homewood-Flossmoor Team 9929 in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). They are going head-to-head in competitions with teams from throughout the Chicago area.

They will be competing in a regional meet in Kankakee this month and hosting a 24-team competition Feb. 10 at Marian Catholic High School. The winner of that meet will advance to FTC Illinois’ statewide competition.
Tech Ninjas are Hannah Beezie, Bill Colton, Christina Cortes, Kaylin Matthews, Lauren Matthews, Liam Nelson, Taylor Washington, Jeremy Wesley, Ernest Woods and Calvin Uecker.  This year’s team sponsor is Schneider Electric of Homewood.
  A referee attaches a
  pictograph to the one-foot
  tall wall that surrounds
  the playing field for the
  tech challenge. The
  Android phone inside
  the Tech Ninja computer,
  stationed on the red
  balance stone, will read
  the pictograph to determine
  its first steps in the

“They’re very bright kids. They all excel,” said coach Mark Matthews who said he is sometimes amazed that they have time to dedicate to Tech Ninjas. Their schedules are filled with school work, competitive sports, music lessons and more.

Tech Ninjas are expected to learn the FTC rule book and the language used in competitions: the base the robot starts from is a stone; the cubes the robot will stack are glyphs; the pictograph, similar to a barcode, gives robots the code for the 30-second autonomous round that requires the robot to knock off the opponent’s ball called a jewel. 

The objective is to get the robot to collect and carry a glyph to a stacking tower. Points are earned for the most glyphs in horizontal and vertical rows. The grand prize is a robot capturing a golden relic piece and carrying it to a special docking area. Points are also earned for being on the stone at the end of a round, no small feat since the stone wobbles because it is off the ground and balanced only in the center.
Part of the grand challenge of FTC is to build the robot. Liam, Hannah and Kaylin develop 3-D CAD-designed robots. From there, they fabricate parts of aluminum, steel and store-bought pieces. The team also has a 3-D printer to make parts.
“Everybody has a turn at drilling, screwing and sawing,” said Matthews.
“It might be your job to build certain parts. Depending on what you do, if it’s needed in competition you stay on it,” explained Kaylin who has become the expert on the grab mechanism.
Electronics are essential. They learn to wire and solder. The robot has to be programmed so the inserted android phone can read and understand codes presented in competition.
Tech Ninjas program the robot and test it out to make certain all the electronics work and the team members who serve as drivers are able to manipulate the robot and its reaching arm to grab and place the pieces in the game earning them the most points. That can be tough when your robot, at the start, can only by 18-inches by 18-inches by 18-inches.
At a December meet at the Homewood Science Center, supporters of the 11 competing teams packed the room to cheer on the young competitors ages 12 to 18.
Teams can play as many as six rounds in a meet. A round is done in 2.5 minutes. Teams are paired by color. So, your red competitor could be your blue partner in the next round.  There’s lots of excitement and some foibles – like the robot that lost a wheel or the one that got stuck on top of a glyph and couldn’t move the entire round.
Tech Ninjas was organized three years ago by Flossmoor parents Cameron Nelson and Matthews who coach the team along with Dan Beezie and Rick Uecker. Some of the members have graduated into Tech Ninjas from FIRST Lego League hosted by the science center.
FIRST Tech Challenge shares its game problems for the season in September. The Tech Ninjas have six to eight weeks to build their robot before the first competition. 
“They’ll look at a problem and say: ‘Wow! How would I do that?’” Matthews said.  Working through the problem “is doing something that’s a lot like (working) in the real world.”
Tech Ninjas meet Friday and Sunday evenings in a designated space at the science center that allows them a workspace for fabricating the robot and keep their tools and other equipment. They also have a practice area to train for future competitions.  
Matthews said they’ve taken their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) message into the community showing off their robot at Homewood’s Farmers Market and at school presentations.
  Tech Ninja team, from left, Lauren Matthews, Calvin
  Uecker and Taylor Washington wait with their robot
  for the next competition.



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