Routt County robotics team wins championship at 4-H State Fair
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A chance meeting with some retired engineers happened to lead to Routt County’s surprising victory at the 4-H State Fair Robotics Championship last weekend in Pueblo.
It was the first time Routt County fielded a robotics team at the 4-H competition, and they won both the youth and senior robotic competitions.
It all started when Kim and Jack Smith, both retired Texas Instruments engineers, unknowingly sat next to the county’s 4-H agent Tami Eggers at a community meeting. The Smiths’ engineering backgrounds caught Eggers’ attention
“She (Tami Eggers) grabbed me and said ‘you’ve got to lead my robotics team,’” said Kim Smith.
Recently retired and living in Clark, the Smiths jumped right in. And although most 4-H teams across the state had been working on their robots for several months, the Smiths were not deterred.
“About 35 kids showed up for the first meeting,” Kim said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
All 4-H teams across the state got a computer and the exact same Lego-based robots for the competition.
“We had to build this autonomous car, and we had to write computer code,” Kim said.
The car needed to navigate through a course using only the computer code created by the students.
“And we told them that ‘robots, unlike kids, always do exactly what you tell them to do,’” Jack added.
The Smiths slowly walked the students, age 8 to 18, through the process of creating code that would tell the robots what to do. The Smiths say the key was giving the kids small “successes” and not burdening them with the entire project upfront.
“We taught them all the steps they would need to do their challenge; they just didn’t know that at first,” Jack said. “It’s just like Legos. You pick a block up and put it in order.”
The orders included telling different sensors when to stop for a pedestrian or a stop sign, or how to follow a colored line on the course.
Sisters Shea and Alena Rossi are 9 and 12 years old, and they won the youth division of the robotics competition.
“Kim and Jack made it really fun,” Shea said.
“After you get a feel for it, it’s not that hard,” added Alena.
“Kim and Jack had mini challenges that taught us the building blocks to eventually build a full program” to run the robots, Alena explained.
The Smiths said the key to winning during Routt County’s first try was “keeping it simple.”
“Some kids had really long cars, which was problematic because of bad turns … knocking over stop signs,” Kim said.
“Simpler is way better,” Shea added. “Some of the kids had this crazy long mess of coding and couldn’t remember where everything was and they’d change things that shouldn’t have been changed.”
Routt County’s Faith and Landry Hixon won the senior division at the robotics championship, and like most of the students, didn’t have any experience with coding.
The Smiths hope the early success of the 4-H Robotics program prompts more kids to seek out STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — opportunities.
“Kids are our passion. You’re shaping the future here,” Kim said.
Anyone who wants to assist the local 4-H Robotics program with time or money can contact Tami Eggers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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