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Robotics program challenges Lincoln County students

ELIZABETH HEFFNER
Staff Writer

The time spent between school hours and homework can be filled with a variety of activities, ranging from sports to the arts to volunteering. But these Lincoln County middle and elementary school students are spending their afternoons programming and designing the future with robotic technology.
In November, two schools from Lincoln County will be competing in the FIRST LEGO league competition. The two teams from North Lincoln Middle School will compete on Nov. 9 at Table Rock Middle School in Morganton.  The team from Rock Springs Elementary is scheduled to compete on Nov. 23 at Burns Middle School in Lawndale. This year, the competition’s theme is “Nature’s Fury.”
The program has been quite successful in Lincoln County. In 2012, Norris Childers Elementary, St James Elementary, North Brook Elementary, Rock Springs Elementary and East Lincoln Middle School advanced to the Western North Carolina Championship.
Starting in 2004, CyberKids Robotics was developed as a non-profit education program for students. Kathy Kent is the creator behind the program.
“She was looking for something for students to do afterschool that was different than what students were doing in computer labs,” said Bill Kent, Vice-President of CyberKids Robotics. “Our primary goal is to help schools develop science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs by providing self-sustaining robotics programs for schools.”
The local program consists of more than 3,800 students, primarily located in Western North Carolina. Each team generally consists of eight students. CyberKids Robotics is divided into three different levels: Lego Robotics, Advanced FTC, and the CyberDroid program. The Lego Robotics level is designed for grades 4-8. At this level, students design, build and program a robot using only Lego products. In the Advanced FTC program, students build and program robots that are programmed to respond to tasks through a remote controller. Wiring and programming the robots is generally done from scratch. The final level of the program is the CyberDroid program. According to the organization’s website, students learn to program a humanoid robot to walk, talk, dance, perform routine “human tasks” and communicate with other robots.  Lincoln County Schools are currently involved in the Lego Robotics and the Advanced FTC programs.
“We’re in every elementary and middle school in Lincoln County except for Pumpkin Center Primary and Pumpkin Center Intermediate Schools,” Kent said. “We’re in every elementary and middle school in Gaston and Cleveland County, and we’re in half of the elementary schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County.”
Students meet with CyberKids Robotics instructors over a span of eight to nine months in 16 one-and-a-half hour sessions.
Starting this year, all middle schools in Lincoln County have a robotics team. As the program has gained popularity, schools have created various requirements for potential participants. According to Kent, some schools require a teacher recommendation and essay, while others limit the program to students enrolled in the Academically and Intellectually Gifted Program (AIG). Participating schools in Cleveland and Burke County cater the program to at-risk students, providing a motivational challenging for the participants.
Funding the program for schools has been the great challenge thus far, according to Kent. In order to help schools with funding the program, the organization writes grants to various companies for sponsorship.
“Lincoln County would love to have three teams to a school,” he said. “But we really need the community to get involved so that this is a possibility.”
Businesses, civic organizations and individuals are encouraged to support the endeavor through the Adopt-A-Robot program. Kent explains that for $2,300, businesses can adopt a $16,000 robot for students to use for one year. At the end of the year, sponsors are invited to visit the school to view the progress students made in learning about robotic technology.
“We try to make it fun for both the businesses and the students,” Kent said.
Currently, there are two businesses sponsoring the program in Lincolnton. Borsch Tools is helping to fund East Lincoln Middle School’s team, and Timken is helping fund Norris Childers Elementary School’s team.
Although the program has faced some challenges, Kent believes the rewards outweigh the bad.
“The most rewarding part is seeing the students work as a team to program a robot,” he said. “It’s that moment where they finally get the robot to do what they want it to do.”
Ultimately, Kent hopes that those who choose to pursue careers in this field are able to stay local to North Carolina.
“You don’t have to move to Silicon Valley to get a job in engineering,” Kent said. “We like to think that we’re developing home-grown engineers. But in order to be successful, businesses have to be involved from the beginning.”
For more information about the CyberKids Robotics program and their upcoming competitions, visit their website at www.cyberkidsrobotics.com.

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