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Solon robots rule

NORTH LIBERTY– Minions, Raging Infernos and robot Domination.
It sounds like the stuff of the latest blockbuster sci-fi action movie, but it’s really the team names Solon’s robotics students have crafted to intimidate their rivals.
Even the Stale Marshmallows pack a punch when it comes to showing off their engineering acumen. On Jan. 26, Solon middle school and high school students hosted a robotics competition at the North Liberty Community Center to do just that.
The Solon participants are also members of the district’s after school robotics club, 15 fifth through 12th graders who meet three days a week to learn about the design, construction and operation of robots. Using computers, motors, electronics and other specialized equipment, the students employ science, technology, engineering and math to determine how to make robotic machines that will execute prescribed tasks. They work under the guidance of two student mentors and programming helpers from Prairie High School– Malcolm Johnson and Calyn Gimse– and adult coaches Bill Mattaliano, Paul Ruff and Neil Johnson.
The better a robot is programmed and built, the more accurately and concisely it will perform. That’s the gist of most robotics competitions: create a robot that will complete a specific mission better, and perhaps faster, than the rest.
Using Vex robotics, Solon students worked to create robots that resembled squat tractors with long, expandable end loaders. At last month’s tournament, they put their contrivances to the test in the competition arena.
In the matches, teams pitted their robots against others in the 12 foot by 12 foot, Plexiglas-walled coliseum to scoop up beanbags and place them in designated troughs, or higher in a tower, within a two-minute time limit. Each team would complete seven matches before receiving a ranking, picking partners and advancing to a final elimination round.
In the end, one victor remains.
The work, however, is never done. While everyone in a robotics competition starts with the same available parts– from kits that can cost thousands of dollars– those components can be assembled in a variety of ways using a range of engineering and design principles. Students rehearse tasks with the robots like athletes prepare for a big game; with focus, drive and attention to all the parts that must work in harmony to achieve success.
“I believe the students have done an excellent job of learning to be a team and improving themselves and their robots with each event,” said coach Bill Mattaliano. “Many of the members had never done this type of event before, so the learning curve was steep from the start.”
And where robots are concerned, there is no gently sloping, straight path to the top.
“It’s never complete,” said Solon senior Nathaniel Ruff. “There is always something else that needs to be tweaked or done.”
Between matches in North Liberty, that’s what kept students busy; adjusting parts with specialized tools, assessing the machine’s movements and reactions, and taking a turn in the practice ring. The 24 teams at the January competition came from Council Bluffs, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Centerville, and from as far away as Batavia and Geneseo, Ill. Solon team results were: Raging Infernos, 11th place; Minions, 16th place; Stale Marshmallows, 17th place; and Domination, 21st place. Tournament champion teams from Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids will advance to the U.S. Nationals competition in March.
“Participating in VEX robotics competitions is a way for Solon students to apply what they have learned, brainstorm as a team, design and test robots and components, redesign and improve their concepts for the next event,” said head coach Mattaliano. “Each season, the game changes and new ideas are needed to be competitive.”
Members of the Solon club head to their final competition of the season this weekend, a tournament to be held March 2 in St. Louis.
“Several students have talked about what they plan to do differently next season, even without knowing what the next game will be,” Mattaliano said. The next VEX game, or required task, will be revealed at the World event in April.
Solon Robotics is open to all middle and high school students from Solon and its surrounding areas. An open house for interested students will be held in late April or early May.