Issac Asimov would be proud


Renata Poet Williams

Robotics team set for competition

[tabs style=”1″][tab title=”The Reveal”] [heading style=”1″]Taking the Lead[/heading] [dropcap style=”1″ size=”3″]T[/dropcap]he world awaits. Every high school student is either excited to start the journey or scared to face it. One goal for secondary education is to prepare young people to be able to survive in our changing world, a difficult task in the age of technology. Still, many people applaud Columbia’s schools for doing just that.
There are however, a few facets of Columbia’s educational system that not only prepare students to survive in the world, but to change it. These “pockets” of learners, one might say, are not only astute observers and thinkers, but more importantly doers. Study after study shows that by doing something, people become better at it. However, while many may do their homework every night or do the dishes, the majority of these tasks become irrelevant in later years.
For the most part, students will not be professors of trigonometry or dish scrubbers. Too often along the way students lack direction in their youth, and education opens a path in each direction. However, education fails to realize, far too often it seems, that among us lay many self-directed individuals. Strangely enough, these high flying and self-directed young people appear to flock in the same areas. These types are the “pockets” of doers. These groups may come in many forms: varsity debate, Student Council or band geeks, for instance.
However, for the purpose of this story, they’re called Army Ants, and the first step on their journey is “The Reveal.”
By the Numbers
By the Numbers
Everyone on the team had been looking forward to this reveal since the bus ride home from last year’s competition. Every student in the team’s main meeting place, room 173 in the Columbia Area Career Center,  were on the edge of their seats, eyes fixated on the screen that in just a few seconds would be revealing this year’s robot. Senior Matthew Starcher and senior Ryan Frappier sit in the front row hands fixed over their laptops ready to write down their ideas and go over the reveal video and details. Junior Connor Crabtree, who is normally chatting away with junior Cameron Warder, quiets down as the video starts.
The hearts in the room seem to beat as one, and the anticipation becomes nearly unbearable. Before the team is able to see the actual task for the year they’re given an overview of past years and the overall goal of FIRST. It’s so interesting to see the reaction of people doing this for their first year as they watch this broadcast as they realize they’re becoming part of something huge. They get to help with a project so much larger than themselves and it gave everyone on the team a universal sense of pride in what they were about to embark on. And even though most of the students were at that point strangers to each other they start to seem like a team. Students who hadn’t ever been involved in anything or were too shy or nerdy to voice their own opinions are realizing their words will be valued by everyone. Of course these realizations make them even more anxious for the reveal.
“I feel like Robotics has given me a voice. People care about what I say,” junior Morgan Berk said.
Finally, when the announcer many recognize from the two previous years comes across the speakers, they hear, “And now, time for this year’s game!…..Ultimate Ascent!” Their first glance at the court brings on the feeling of excitement, intrigue and absolute terror.
How on earth were they supposed to figure this out?” they seem to think.
And then something remarkable happens. Students start speaking about how they were going to do this. The level of intelligence within these four walls is breathtaking.
Polycarbonate shields!”
Scissor lift!”
Words that most high school students and even the majority of adults, would have no idea how to define were flowing from these students’ mouths as if they were reading a grocery list. It wasn’t long before they were replaying the reveal and drawing sketches of their ideas on the whiteboard. What is truly unique about the team is that everyone’s opinion was valued after the reveal. Everyone in the group, from marketing to mentors, had their ideas written down on the whiteboard. The more the students talked about the task ahead of them the thicker the air became.
The countdown had begun; 42 days, 1,008 hours, was all they have to go from nothing to a functioning and competing robot. [media url=”” width=”600″ height=”400″] [divider top=”1″] [/tab] [tab title=”Marketing”] [heading style=”1″]Sell It, Baby[/heading] [dropcap style=”1″ size=”3″]W[/dropcap]ithin the ARMY ANTS’ ant hill exists three sub-teams. Each can be loosely linked to a section of a mock replication of a military in a robotic war, one poising and preparing for battle.
The first of the three sections is the marketing team and is the most vital for the foundation of the ant hill. This sub-team’s mission can be linked in concept to many modern militaries’ practice of reconnaissance. Consisting mostly of what one might call “people persons,” this group is tasked with charming, selling and collecting the funds and support vital to the team from businesses around Columbia. As the builders of the financial foundation for the Army Ants, their jobs must not only be completed with the finesse of a sale’s person, but with the drive of a patriotic Ant, loyal to their hill, and no other.
Headed up by Dr. Julie Lyman, the group keeps its goal simple in concept but difficult to complete.
“We work all year to get a five-grand minimum,” Lyman said.
Members of the Army Ants discuss strategy.
Members of the Army Ants discuss strategy.
The requirement of $5,000 is just the beginning for the marketing team, however. Within the program’s short, three-year history, students have already earned recognition by winning the Rookie All-Stars Award along with the Highest Rookie Seed award which sent the team to national competition. These are the two largest awards a rookie team can achieve in a regional competition.
This may seem a great honor, which it is, but with such accomplishment comes not only pride, but an even more daunting financial need. The national competition will cost the team yet another $5,000 for entrance and additional traveling expenses. Funding for travel, room and board, as well as repairs, will once again call upon the marketing team. So, to pull off another shot in nationals, marketing will be sent out for the second wave, as the cavalry. While making it to the championships would be rewarding, it would come with a large burden for this section of the team.
“Assuming we make it to the championships, that means we would need 10-grand,” a task in the most literal sense, twice as hard as the first, Dr. Lyman said.
The marketing room, also know as the Student Center in the Columbia Area Career Center, is by far the loudest when the robotics team is working. The soundtrack to pitch perfect is heard blaring from junior Morgan Berk’s corner desk, which was cluttered with neglected school work. Junior Amy Blevins usually sits casually around the center table chatting about her day with others from the team while a few students will actually be working, struggling to make buttons to display the army ant team proudly. Of course, this lack of hurried production is only a theme common for the marketing team between weeks two and four of build season because by this time marketing scouts have gone out and earned most of their money, t-shirts have been designed by senior Eric Becker and junior Ryan Frappier has created the website.

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So all the marketing team has to do at this point is sit back and relax. That is until around the last two weeks of build season when the marketing team suddenly springs to life. The change is easy to see. Blevins and Berk go from sitting around doing little tasks to orchestrating a conveyor belt of people to mass produce buttons. Dr. Lyman hurriedly books hotel rooms and gathers permission forms from students to find out how many are going. Rooms are assigned and budgets for food and other competition necessities are arranged. Although this sub-team isn’t a big part of the game during competition, they play a big role in the team’s overall success.
During the game the marketing team and members of other sub-teams not part of the drive team sit in the stands cheering and dancing for hours at a time. Their enthusiasm not only encourages the drive-team to do their best, but can actually help all of the Army Ants to win the Gracious Professionalism award.
“We really do have to have the money,” Dr. Lyman said. “If we don’t have the money, we don’t get in and that means they’ve built a robot that isn’t going to be going anywhere.”
Despite the typical lackadaisical atmosphere, there are times when the marketing team is under a heavy layer of stress. In order to raise the funds outlined by Dr. Lyman, a few members of the team are employed to head out and sell the plight of the Army Ants.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it could be just because I like people,” said Blevins, a member and large contributor to the team.  She and a few others are often asked to go about the city and give a short pitch to business owners. In this mini-presentation that may be as short as five minutes, marketers are charged with being not only quick to the point but also charming as they ask for donations for the cause. Most of the time, she said, the response is, “We’ll have to talk to the owner.”

During meetings Army Ants benefit from donations of sponsors.
During meetings Army Ants benefit from donations of sponsors.
These words, though typical, can be just as stressful as the presentation itself. While the team receives a range of donations, not all of them are in the form of cash. Many businesses that are unable to donate cash often offer alternative items such as Subs from Jimmy Johns to help feed the hungry team. Still, the money is vital to fund the team.
“We received $2,000 from J.C. Penney’s  our first year. Without their help we might not have made it,” Dr. Lyman said. “It’s a drop dead kind of deadline.”
[divider top=”1″] [/tab] [tab title=”Programming & Engineering”] [heading style=”1″]Cross Your Circuits[/heading] [dropcap style=”1″ size=”3″]D[/dropcap]ark shadows surround this team with sparks illuminating their actions for only brief moments revealing the works of this sub-group, or at least, that’s how it feels. The most elusive and secretive portion of the Ant hill takes its tasks to the innermost sanctions of the colony.
Easily paralleled to the scientists of the military, the members of this section of the ant hill work in the basement of the one level Career Center, or one might think. Rarely ever viewed in full perspective these are the makers of the robot and the off-the-rocker scientists who plan the Frankenstein. These ants are often equipped with heads larger than their trunks and feelers made for technology.
Army Ants' Twitter pageThe last stage of the process is that of finally putting the dream of the teams together. This sub-group of the ant hill has been waiting to get their feelers moving. Working in a pace to pace atmosphere alongside programming these ants mingle for the six week period leading up to the end of build season. This stage is the final boot camp for the warrior robot and will determine the success of the program as a whole.
A group of concerned engineers crowds around a mangled piece of machinery, deciding what to do next. One engineer takes on the burden of turning the machinery and wires into a functional operation. It takes a special skill set.
Senior Theo Choma stands in front, leading the group like a teacher would in a classroom. He’s been here for some years, so he talks with confidence. The engineering team has six weeks to come up with and build the best robot they possibly can, and then wrap it up in a plastic bag, zip tied and all, and hope what they’ve made is not only adequate, but hopefully a robot that will bring them to the national competition. Each year, restrictions are given and the game is named.
Engineers use a white board to share their ideas on the building of the robot.
The team uses a white board to share their ideas on the building of the robot.
During the first week, the engineering team members bounce ideas off of each other, coming up with four main sketches of what their robot could possibly be. After a vote, a favored robot emerges, a helper robot that also has some other tricks up its sleeve, and the engineering team began to do what it does best; engineer of course. Everyone was happy to have come up with ideas, no one harbors resentment for the choice or hurt feelings.
“During competition [is the most stressful.] We’re halfway through the build season so as the build season progresses, stress will go up because the deadline is nearing, but [the robot is] far better than last year,” mentor Mr. Anthony Kindwall said.
The team works in a medium to small room that gets pretty crowded when there’s a lot of people. As problems occur, each person stands around the table and looks at the robot, mentors helping and eyes a-gazing. These students have a special talent to see what is not usually seen and are quite ambitious individuals.

You’d have to be insane

In all honesty, when it comes down to it, “we give them a robot,” said Jessica Klein, a Junior and member of the Engineering team. This sub group of the ant hill, takes working over-time to a level unknown to most high-schoolers. Engineers will often fit two days’ worth of school hours into one, as they dedicate their time to the mass assortment of gears and gadgets that they will eventually transform into the robot essential to the team’s competition.

Two students work to wire the robot.
Grouped into pairs of two and assigned one project at a time, the ants will work piece by piece to assemble smaller parts into larger pieces and the larger pieces, into the robot. This year’s given task is for the robot to both shoot Frisbees and climb a ladder, a strange combination that has made this year’s robot a bit more difficult than it has been in the previous years. However, among the madness, the cutting, the wiring and rewiring, the project has taken form within the six week build season. The robot now stands waiting to be shipped along with the team to Saint Louis, to the FIRST Robotics competition, a regional event, where their efforts will be tested.
It has all seemed, to an outsider, to have formed by magic. However, for those of us who have followed the process from the start, we know much better. From the brainstorms that struck their makers with ideas, to the exhaustion from a long nights work, the ants have been on a journey that is slowly drawing to a close. For many, as Robo-Armageddon draws nearer, Engineers and programmers alike look excitedly for their labor of love the show its stuff. Weighing in at ninety four pounds, shooting Frisbees and freely lifting itself upon ladders, the robot appears to be a success. der, a strange combination that has made this year’s robot a bit more difficult than it has been in the previous years. However, among the madness, the cutting, the wiring and rewiring, the project has taken form within the six week build season. The robot now stands waiting to be shipped along with the team to Saint Louis, to the FIRST Robotics competition, a regional event, where their efforts will be tested.
In review of their work and time spent attending to this team, Klein was asked to describe the type of person that would be a part of this, “Insane, you’d have to be insane”, said Klein.
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DAY 4: Final

The final, and most stressful, day of competition had finally reared its head. Today was the day a winner would be decided. Before then, however, the judges needed to reveal the top eight alliance team captains.

First year competitors are easily confused by this alliance process. Basically the top eight teams’ captains are called onto the field. After this, each team captain selects one additional team they want to be their alliance in the final round. The top team picks first, then the second and so forth. Then all these teams pick a third competitor.

The Army Ants alliance, team 1706, became the second alliance captains, but not for long. The first alliance team 1288 (The Ravens) chose 1706 as their second teammate without hesitation. However, before this dream-team had the chance to choose the Army Ants as their third teammate, the Ants were chosen to be a part of the eighth alliance along with team 3686 (The TurkeyBots) and team 4232 (AHS).

Signs with team the Army Ants team number were made to cheer in the stands.
Signs with team the Army Ants team number were made to cheer in the stands.

Although this wasn’t the alliance the Ants were hoping for, spirits remained high as the Ant’s build team helped the TurkeyBots improve their robot over lunch.  After lunch, the final matches began. The first match was the eighth alliance team against the first. The Ants lost this match with a close score of 72 to 63. Tensions among the Ants grew as they realized losing a second game would mean they were out of the match. Sadly, the Ants alliance lost the second round as well with another tight score of 57 to 50.

There was a dispute over the score of the second round but in the spirit of Gracious Professionalism the Army Ants shook the hands of their opponents and hung out in the stands cheering on their friend, team 1706, who unfortunately, won 2nd place overall.

Even though the Ants weren’t going to Nationals this year they all agree the experience was more than worth it. All of us Ants, all 40 some students, had all become close. Heartfelt statuses were posted to the Ant’s Facebook page about how much fun the whole experience had been. It is really a life-changing club for all students involved. And that in and of itself is winning enough.


As day three of the trip and the official day of battling wrapped up, the Army Ants Robotics Team seems to have a promising alliance for tomorrow’s matches with the Ratchet Rockers from Wentzville, Missouri. During a grueling match against team 2838, 3411 and 4232, the Rockers’ shots from across the field were being blocked by 4232. The Ants’ driver, saw their temporary teammate in trouble and knew if they would help, points could be scored by the Ratchet Rockers to win the match. Robot 3792, the Army Ants, acted as a blocker, and saved the Rockers from any more shots blocked.

Preparation for battle.
Preparation for battle.

Team 4232’s blocking mechanism broke from a Frisbee and thus our soon-to-be alliances were able to snipe goals again. Seeing that the Rockers were safe, the Army Ants were able to drive over to the red pyramid and gain 10 extra points from hanging on the bottom bar. The final score was 123-23, with a win for Team Red. After the match, team members from the Ratchet Rockers came over to the Ants’ build crew, talking about how excited they are to work with us again, hinting that the alliance was a go.

To cheer on the Ants’ new friends, members from the cheering section walked over

the Rockers section to help cheer them on during their matches. The favors were returned during the Army Ants’ matches and by the end of the day, Army Ants were sure their new bond would prevail in tournament tomorrow. The CACC Army Ants Robotics team was able to snag one of the top contenders, if not the top, by Gracious Professionalism, and being a good teammate.
To see the battle via video, click here.


As day one of competition rolled around, the Army Ants team prepared for battle. It may have been a boring day for marketers, but one of the most stressful days for engineers. For being the first day that the actual robot is combined with its programming, many problems are expected to occur. Teams had practice matches as robots were ready and adjustments were made as needed. The day brought many highs and lows, but one thing’s for sure: Every team should be nervous about tomorrow.

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Building team members crowd the ‘court’ to be given safety directions.
The crowd roared as the judges made their way into the arena. They had their typical humorous intro to who they were. As they began to explain the rules of the competition, the engineers and programmers sat watching, focused and attentive, asking questions intimately if that determined whether or not they would move on, and in all actuality, it did. The crowd beyond the stage continued with their usual chatter, given this didn’t pertain to them. The music from the speakers usually had teams up on their feet dancing.
The real excitement came when the robots began their practice rounds. Frisbees flew for their lives
Other teams show their spirit through flashy mascots.
Other teams show their spirit through flashy mascots.
through the air knocking into walls as they struggled to make it through the designated holes. The shooting bots raced around the arena while other climber robots rolled over to the pyramid. One team gracefully climbed the pyramid, completing each level with ease. The crowds eyes bore holes into the robot until it was secure at level three. The boredom of our own Army Ants Robotics was nowhere to be seen, only screaming fans were left in their place.
“I say 3-7, you say 9-2,” screamed Eric Becker, a fellow Army Ant. This, and other cheers were yelled, though still cheering for other teams.
Even though this was only the practice round, the spirit was just as strong as it would have been during the final rounds. By the end, nerves were still high for everyone on the team and it was clear everyone would be giving it their all for the rest of the competition. Though we are hoping for the win, there will honestly be no true losing this weekend.
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On Wednesday, March 13, the Army Ants left the CACC parking lot to travel to St. Louis for the competition. Check back for updates daily!
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