Rise of the Robots: Vision Charter kids chart new course

Rise of the Robots: Vision Charter kids chart new course

CALDWELL, Idaho (KBOI) -- If this were an action movie, you might call it "Rise of the Botmasters."

Because the story of the robotics team at Vision Charter School is worthy of, if not an Oscar, a documentary at the very least.

They are wise beyond their years and scary good at dreaming the big dream.

In their case, the big dream was constructing a robot for an annual robotics competition held this year in Moscow, Idaho.

The robot's official name is "2997," but she's affectionately known as "Beauty," so, naturally, her handlers are the "Beasts."

"We custom-built the frame and the chassis," says Hannah Samuelson proudly.

But Beauty would be nothing without her handlers and their video game savvy.

"My set controls the lift and scoop," explains Sam Cline, a senior. "It allows us to raise the scoop and dump blocks."

The operation looks deceptively simple: scoop small yellow blocks and dump them in baskets attached to a balance beam. But the robot has seven motors and requires two operators working in tandem to perform any task.

"We want to get to the point where it's like second nature, almost like playing video games for us," says Cline.

While there's an element of fun at work here, the goal is to build a simple but workable mini-robot.

"The important part of the challenge," according to Hannah, "is getting the attention of the judges and showing them what a great team we are."

And the Vision kids proved themselves more than worthy when Beauty had an operational hiccup in the middle of the event.

"One of our lift motors burned out in between a match where we had eight minutes to fix it," says Hannah, recalling the pressure.

But sophomore Isaiah La Masters is pragmatic when he says, "Stuff breaks. It happens. Gotta work together, gotta fix it and get it back out and have fun."

And in fact it was the group's incredible teamwork that earned them a second-place "Inspire Award" and an invitation to the upcoming super-regionals in Sacramento.

That grace under pressure was also on display when a reporter showed up to see Beauty in action.

The robot suddenly stopped working and Sam and Hannah jumped right in with screwdrivers and duct tape in hand.

To keep 2997 humming takes an every-day-after-school dedication and a bin of replacement parts.

And all for about two minutes in the spotlight, as competition rules demand.

Explains Sam, "During competition, we have a 2-and-a-half-minute time constraint, where we're under pressure to get as much done as we can as quickly as possible"

And that includes--with any luck--the robot performing a neat trick involving pull-ups. Yup, Beauty as a robot gymnast.

All of this is eye candy for the younger middle-schoolers who have a robot of their own, one they nicknamed "Bob."

Bob is made of Lego blocks and boasts three different sets of wheels, including tank treads.

Seventh-grader Isaac Oldenkamp says it's less irritating than working with the bigger robots.

"Because you have, like, eight motors," he says nonchalantly. "You have to replace those if they break. We only have three."

It took guts and gears for these botmasters to succeed, a Da Vinci Code of diagrams and an acknowledgement that, while failure is never an option, it's always waiting in the wings.

Mentor Brad Hunt can't help but be impressed.

"I've heard some of them say they're surprised they did well," he says. 

"I'm not. I've watched them grow and it's been a pleasure to be part of this.  I'm really proud of them."