STARBASE Rolling with Robots for Cheyenne Youth

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Cheyenne fifth-graders are a lucky bunch, especially if they have an affinity for technology, science and robots.
As part of the National Guard-sponsored STARBASE Academy, fifth-graders are introduced to robotics along with other science, technology, engineering and math subjects and activities. Some of them have gone on to join robotics teams and to compete with their creations through their high school years.
They are introduced to robotics via LEGO FV3 machines at STARBASE. The students, who spend four days at the academy, learn to build and program the entry-level robots as part of the curriculum. 
Some of the fifth-graders had opportunity to further their new-found passion for robotics as STARBASE supported robotics activities for elementary-level students outside of school hours in the past. They are currently not staffed to do so.
That’s a predicament for home-schooled fifth-grader Tristen Rayburn, who was in the STARBASE classroom earlier in the day, and hanging out at the Laramie County Library on the evening of Jan. 12, enjoying the “Discover Space, A Cosmic Journey” event.
Among the exhibitors at the library that night, were several high school students, who once attended STARBASE, who are still involved with robotics, and were honing their machines and skills for the annual First Tech Challenge competition held every February in Casper.
Trowa Elbert-Armstrong, a 16-year-old East High School student was struggling to get a cellphone signal to communicate with his team’s robot. Rayburn was drawn to the scene like Spock to space, and made himself right at home offering suggestions and handing over tools and duct tape like a surgeon’s assistant.
“I’m looking forward to joining a robotics team,” the 11-year-old said. 
STARBASE Deputy Director and First Tech Challenge coach Mark Nowotny, who was at the library with the robotics team was sorry to break the news to Rayburn and his mom, but said he hoped to have a team up and running as soon as some of the new STARBASE instructors gain experience. “We’re just not ready yet,” he said.
“What we teach at STARBASE gets them started, and then (traditionally) we are able to continue working with robots,” Nowotny said.
That’s how 16-year-old South High School student Brandon Schwab got started. He was thrilled when the robotics program for eighth- to 10th-graders got started a few years ago. Nowotny pitched it to Schwab’s class while he was a student at Johnson Junior High. 
“Mr. Nowotny said FTC was the next step up,” Schwab said. “They come up with a new game or theme every year on the LEGO website. This year it’s Relic Recovery. There are opportunities to earn points and awards with recovery of the yellow relic as the goal.”
Elbert-Armstrong has helped coach the younger enthusiasts in the past and looks forward to getting the STARBASE robotics program re-established. For now, he’s busy as president of the Nuclear 4-H Club, and getting his “Servo Sychos” team ready for the statewide competition.
“We’re required to keep an engineering notebook. We keep track of everything we do,” he explained. “Design, updates and even community outreach.”
The nine teenagers under Nowotny’s tutelage and STARBASE’s umbrella have done a number of demonstrations, like the library-sponsored event. They have even used their robots to deliver flowers to residents at Aspen Winds senior center and to inspire entries in the 2017 Big Brothers Big Sisters Great Cheyenne Bed Race, where the Servo Sychos’ War Wagon took first place in “Best Speed” and “Most Creative” in the Junior Class. 
Nowotny said one of the program’s greatest accomplishments is to have been presented to the U.S. House of Representatives in a Congressional report.
His biggest challenge? “Not to jump in when they are having trouble,” Nowotny said with a chuckle. “I might shoot out some ideas, but they troubleshoot and eventually figure it out.”

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Posted February 2018