Students hope to see ‘Atlas’ shoulder title

A Lafayette Parish robotics team bestowed a mighty name on the robot its members spent the past six weeks designing and building: Atlas.

However, this robot won’t exactly live up to the myth of the Titan it’s named for. Rather than holding the weight of the world on its shoulders, this Atlas is designed to toss a much lighter sphere — a 24-inch diameter, 3-pound ball — over obstacles and into hoops as part of an international robotics challenge later this month.

The students are part of Team 3616: Phenomena, a group of more than 30 students representing Comeaux High, Lafayette High and Teurlings Catholic. The team won first place in a regional robotics competition earlier this month, securing a spot in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition championship scheduled April 23-26 in St. Louis.

“The competition is set up like a sport,” said Connor Stevens, 17, a Comeaux senior.

As part of the competition, students have six weeks to design and build a robot capable of launching the three-pound ball over a truss and shooting it into baskets.

Team members use a control panel with a joystick to maneuver Atlas across the playing court. The competition encourages strategy as team members cooperate with other teams for assisted shots and blocking other robots.

Teams may be penalized for fouls such as ramming into another robot to block a shot, but students receive extra points for cooperating with other teams on the competition course and off it. For instance, the competition encourages teams to help one another with repairs or other needs.

The team offered Calvin Griffin, 16, another outlet for his competitive spirit. The Comeaux junior competes on the team’s tennis and wrestling teams.

“I wanted to compete in something other than sports that could test me mentally,” Griffin said.

Phenomena began four years ago and is open to any high school student — public, private or homeschool — in Lafayette Parish, said Lisa Ranney, a Comeaux High sciences and robotics teacher who is the team’s adviser. In its first year, the team made it to the championship games, placing 33rd out of 88 teams, Ranney said.

“We’ve been trying since then to repeat it,” Ranney said.

Students receive real-world experience and expertise from mentors who teach students about design, welding and computer programming. The process takes a major commitment from students who spend their time after school and on Saturdays focused on their task.

Stevens said he joined the team two years ago with the hope of building fighting robots, or battle-bots. He stuck around for the challenge and the attraction to what the robot-building and competition offers: problem-solving.

“Before I was in robotics, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in college,” he said. “Now, I want to go into mechanical engineering. It’s a lot of fun. I want to be a professional problem solver.”

Building a robot and going to competition isn’t the sole mission of the team. The students help promote science, technology, engineering and math disciplines throughout the parish by hosting events such as regional science fairs and by visiting young students at other schools, Ranney said.

“They’re spreading STEM throughout the community,” she said.