MACC, the block-lifting robot, teaches computer programming, perseverance for students

Published 9:39 am Monday, December 9, 2019

Home-school students in Carter County recently came home from a robotics competition in Nashville, putting their skills in computer programming and robotics to the test against hundreds of students from across the state.

The group of four middle-school students, Clare Clark, Marshall Nulton, Aden Carpenter and Camden Marr, said they had roughly a month to learn what they needed to do for the competition, which took place late November.

“It had to perform a challenge,” Clark said. “The robot had to do something in under two minutes.”

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After learning about the competition, Carter County Drug Prevention Director Jilian Reece got the students in contact with Dennis Courtney with Steamworks in Kingsport, who taught them what they needed to know about the software they would need.

This training required the group to make multiple trips to Kingsport to get ready.

“The last week, we went there four times, three hours each,” Clark said.

After spending so long on the robot and learning about how to make it run, the group affectionately named the robot MACC, after the initials of their names.

MACC was a unique challenge for the group, but it was also a source of fun throughout the process.

“[Steamworks] did not charge us anything,” Nulton said. “We started from scratch.”

Marr said part of the fun was trying to learn everything from the ground up.

“It was exciting that we learned how to do all of that,” Marr said.

The group determined they could download the code onto the robot itself and use a remote to pilot it, rather than trying to program the entire sequence of events all at once and hoping no change came around to mess it up.

MACC had a fun time at the competition itself, though it did run into hurdles when it was its turn.

“We had to restart it a lot,” Clark said.

The group faced stiff competition from much more experienced schools, many of whom Clark said met once a day putting their robots together.

Computer programming in general, but especially robotics, is a field defined by trial and error processes, a fact the students learned first-hand as they worked to make MACC work. To Clark, it was a lesson in perseverance.

“We just had it keep on changing the code,” she said.

On game day, MACC had to follow a line on the floor, pick up a little block, pick up another one and then put them both down elsewhere.

Sadly, MACC did not place in the competition, though the experience itself was the real prize for the students.

“I learned how to get it to move at all,” Clark said. “I liked learning how to do all that.”

The National Beta Club says it helps organize competitions like this so students can gain valuable, first-hand experience in a variety of different fields.

For these students, that experience came partly from working with Steamworks.

“If we did not have [Courtney], we could not have done any of this,” she said. “I am going to do this again next year.”

Clark said Courtney reuses the robots for new teams, so MACC did not get to go home with Clark and the rest of her team, though his memory lives on in the lessons and experience she and her classmates gained from the competition.