Members of Egg-streme Egg-sperts leap from their chairs as their name is announced as the second place winner at the Fairbanks tourney. Jeff Brady

Second in state robotics, while performing at home

By JEFF BRADY

Despite never physically making it to a state tournament, Skagway robotics team “Egg-streme Egg-sperts” was allowed to compete virtually last weekend, and a stellar robot performance right at home propelled them to a second place finish in Fairbanks.
The team initially was invited to Anchorage for a First Lego League state tournament on Jan. 21, but bad weather in Seattle and Juneau delayed jets for two days, stranding all five Southeast teams in the capital city. However, they were told that, because of their predicament, they would be allowed to compete via videoconference in a Fairbanks tourney on Feb. 4. Skagway had the technology here and was game. After scoring well in a mini-tournament with the stranded Juneau teams, the Skagway team returned home and tweaked their robot missions some more.
The school’s tech wizard, Rick Hess, set up the videoconferencing equipment in teacher-coach Mary Thole’s elementary classroom, and the connections were made with GCI to link Skagway to the tournament at a Fairbanks middle school.
Last Saturday, their slimmed down Lego robot, “Shrink-a-dink”, scored nearly the maximum number of points on four of five missions, 132 points. That was the most ever by the young team. Only a faster robot from Anchorage team Clam Chowder, with 163 points, scored higher among the 34 teams competing from all over the state.
The robot score was announced first and thrilled the team and about 20 family members and supporters who gathered in Thole’s classroom.
“That is such an incredible award for our kids, because that was the biggest challenge for them to overcome,” Thole told the group, explaining how the head judge at the SE tourney in December said the only thing that kept Skagway from winning the region championship was robot performance.
Since then, she said they worked really hard in practice, sometimes four to six days a week, except during the the Christmas break. They finally got the robot working 100 percent of the time, but there always seem to be quirks in competition.
On Saturday, they had three sessions on the Food Factor board. The first run was nearly flawless: the robot grabbed a rat for pest control points, it swept in four fish and put one back, it removed some bad bacteria, and it put groceries on the table – all in a span of two and a half minutes. That was a big score, but they were hoping to get one more mission completed to score even more. But during the last two runs, there were some glitches, and they came up with fewer points. Luckily, the judges take the highest score of the three sessions, and their first score was pretty good. At the end of the round, they were told they were in second, but they still had to go up against the top teams. Although in head-to-head competition they scored just 100, their final placement was not affected.
A couple hours before the robot competitions, the Skagway team had presented its SE-winning egg smoking project to judges, explained their robot design and mission programming, and were questioned on their core values. They apparently scored high in all three areas.

Above left, Denver Evans and Madison Cox show judges the team's project boolet, and the team explains their core values to judges in Fairbanks. From left are teacher Mary Thole, Evans, Danny Brady, Shane Sims, Kara Whitehead, and Cox.

The videoconference line with GCI worked well through all their presentations to judges in a classroom off the main gym at the Fairbanks middle school. It wasn’t until the equipment was moved inside the gym for the awards, that it started cutting out at the Fairbanks end.
Thole filled the virtual gaps by commenting on the team and explaining what they had done since Christmas to make the robot perform better. They were given their meet medals and a cake and posed for pictures.
Finally, the equipment started working again as the final champions awards were about to be presented. The emcee called for a drum roll, and then announced the second place winner: Egg-streme Egg-sperts.
The five Skagway kids - Denver Evans, Madison Cox, Danny Brady, Shane Sims, and Kara Whitehead – jumped up from their chairs, and there was lots of waving back and forth on the TV. They also stood up and gave Clam Chowder virtual high fives for their overall victory when it was announced.
In the room were their mentors, Rosalie and Riley Westfall, members of the new high school Team Sprocketoids. The former state champs helped get the team started on the right path, but Thole said captain Evans and the team took charge of the final programming that netted them more points from their missions.
“The dedication and the hard work that all of you have shown to really move ahead and continue to improve and improve and improve has been incredible, as a coach, to be a part of,” she said. “Because that’s something that has to come from you. It can’t come from me.”
At press time, Egg-streme Egg-sperts was waiting to find out if they will be invited to the next level, nationals, as this year’s runner-up from Alaska. This was the third straight year that a Skagway FLL team had placed in the top two in the state. The 2009 team took second, and last year’s Winter Weezers team won state. Both of those teams advanced.
In the meantime, the robotics focus shifts to the high school team, which will present an exhibition on Monday, Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. in the tech room just off the library. Everything in high school robotics is at a bigger level, starting with a robot that’s about two feet tall. The team will then head to Sitka for regionals on Feb. 18.

UPDATE: The team will be attending nationals at LEGOLAND in California in May.