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Build a better robot


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A Christian homeschool robotics team competes for more than just trophies

Wichita robotics competition Photo by Lauren Dunn

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: robots and education.

A survey of nearly 2,000 people across many fields says American students lack enough early education in subjects that support robotics. Critical thinking skills that encourage young people to go into STEM careers— science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

REICHARD: But there’s more to learn than even that. WORLD’s Lauren Dunn brings us the story of a homeschool robotics team in Wichita, Kansas.

LAUREN DUNN: In early December, about 20 high school students work in several different rooms in a church basement. It’s the last full week of regular meetings and work times before regionals week.

STUDENTS: OK, so actually, we need to, Julia, we need you to get these painted, so can you take those off? Basically, cut the robot and give those to Jenna. OK, so Charlie, I want you to start packing.

The Wichita Homeschool Warriors robotics team took first place at the state competition, but they know they’ll face stiffer competition at regionals.

PENISTON: Basically, if you have a large gear on the motor, which, the motor turns, paired with a smaller gear on the wheel, it’s a long process, but basically that doubles the speed.

That’s Seth Peniston. He’s a high school junior and the team’s robot leader this year.

Wichita Homeschool participates in BEST Robotics. BEST stands for Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology. Nearly 400 teams across most of the United States participate in BEST. The game changes every year with a focus on a real-world field, like lean manufacturing or space exploration. For this competition, it’s robotic surgery.

PENISTON: So there’s like ventricles. And then there’s veins on each side, arteries. So the whole game floor is basically a human body and the inside of it made out of, like, wooden materials.

Students practice presentations and build a booth that explain the team’s process of designing a robot. Some students write the notebook that lays out details of the team’s work throughout the semester. Others work on the robot itself, divided up into sub-teams that focus on sections like the arm, wheels, or chassis.

By the end of the week—just days before regionals—the student leaders have decided to scrap the plans for adding gears to the wheels. It’s too close to competition day for all the drivers to practice with the faster robots. Jeremiah Schlittenhardt is a high school senior and the team’s student president.

SCHLITTENHARDT: If you can have a good robot, and not as consistent drivers, or you can have a not as high quality robot, but more consistent drivers who are more familiar with the robot, I always go with that decision, the second one.

David Alexander and his wife, Beverly, have led the team since 2004.

ALEXANDER: We’ve had students that have come through and gone to careers in music, journalism, marketing, entrepreneurship, engineering, math, science, computer stuff.

They first got involved with the team when their own children participated as students. They stayed involved even after their kids graduated because they saw it as a way to give back what their own family gained through robotics.

ALEXANDER: Our team is a Christian team. And so we open and close with prayer. And we talk about Scripture throughout the time. But at the same time, they’re learning life skills that they can apply into the real workplace. And how do we as Christians operate within a secular world out there? How do we learn how to deal with conflict management?

Other parents also monitor the workshop. Former students come back as mentors, showing students how to do computer-aided design, or CAD, or how to put gears on a wheel.

Jonathan Dirks was a student on the team in high school.

DIRKS: Three years in high school. 2006 through 2008.

Now he’s an engineer who works with CAD. He mentors current students on the team, teaching them CAD skills that they then use toward the notebook or booth.

DIRKS: And then, if there’s ever a problem, if there’s ever an issue that they’re having, I’ll try to figure it out, and then undo everything and then have them re-do it.

Soon it’s time to put that work to the test as the team competes at regionals in Denver, Colo.

ANNOUNCER: In 3-2-1, GO! 

After a couple of great rounds, two Warriors students are disqualified in back-to-back rounds for accidentally interfering with opponents’ game pieces while they maneuver the robot. That’s two rounds with zero points.

First-year team member Caden Heidrick was one of those disqualified. He knows he’ll be driving again in the semi-finals.

HEIDRICK: I just hope that I don’t hit the walls. If you’re being humble, then you’re not thinking, let’s do it as good as I can, you’re thinking more, let’s just do what I can, but I won’t try to do as much as I can and go too fast, that I mess up.

The team recovers the losses in other matches and continues to advance.

STUDENT: This is for the trophies! This is what we’ve been working for! 

Then, after a full day of competing, the students finally hear the results of their work.

ANNOUNCER: The champion this evening is Wichita Homeschool!

Students congratulate competitors from other teams on their awards and pose for pictures. A few minutes later, Jeremiah gathers the Wichita Homeschool group together.

DIRKS: I know that, yes, there was a lot on the drivers, there was a lot with everyone cheering, participating, and everyone putting in the work, but ultimately, we couldn’t have done it without God’s blessing. And ultimately, it’s because of Him that we won.

AUDIO: Ready? Everyone in? Here we go. Warriors on 3! 1-2-3 WARRIORS!

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn in Wichita, Kan., and Denver, Colo.

Wichita Homeschool Warriors robotics team, 2023

Wichita Homeschool Warriors robotics team, 2023 Photo courtesy of Lauren Dunn

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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