Middle school students from Spearfish and Belle Fourche and Black Hills State University students had the rare opportunity take part in an underground robotics competition at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) this week. On March 21, these students left their classrooms to compete in the third annual BHSU Underground Robotics Competition at Sanford Lab in Lead.
Middle school students watched a live video stream from the surface of the facility as the BHSU students who served as mentors for the project ran the robots through an obstacle course 4,850 feet below the surface, near the BHSU Underground Campus.
A total of 24 middle school students from Spearfish and Belle Fourche participated in this competition. Each group of two middle school students worked with one BHSU mentor. These teams have met periodically since October, building and programming robots to complete actions that would gain points in the competition. Robots were programmed to travel over ramps, drive through tunnels, and deliver objects across the course.
Teddy Long, a sixth grader from Belle Fourche, won the competition with his robot named “Missed Opportunity.” Allysa Burggraff, a special education major at BHSU, was Long’s mentor. “Teddy focused on making the program perfect,” Burggraff shares. “He told me during a practice that if the robot does not do the same thing consistently, then it’s not 100% perfect. Even when we weren’t meeting, he was always making huge improvements.”
“The competition works as middle school outreach,” explains Dr. Brianna Mount, assistant professor of physics, who works daily at the BHSU Underground Campus. “There’s been research, especially with young girls, that students either choose science or don’t choose science as a career in middle school. That’s why we focus on that age group, trying to nudge them towards a career in science.”
Middle school students toured the facility at surface-level and participated in science-based, problem-solving activities throughout the day. BHSU students toured both the Ross and Davis Campuses underground, witnessing leading-edge research projects.
This is the second year Hannah Owens, a chemistry major from Spearfish, has been involved in the project. “One big thing I noticed is that this year there were a lot more girls involved, which I thought was really great,” Owens says. “I think it’s an awesome experience for the kids to learn more about what’s going on at Sanford Lab.”
Kerry Tarrant, a psychology and mathematics major from Rapid City, says that the middle school students took charge of their project. “Our goal as mentors is to help them critically think and work through their big ideas,” Tarrant says. “They construct and program the robot. They put the robot through tests to see how it preforms on the obstacle course. It’s amazing to see middle school students develop a plan and do a lot of this stuff on their own.”
Connor Curran, a seventh grade student from Belle Fourche Middle School, excitedly discussed the work he and his partner, Caden Thomsen, had done on their robot named “Darth Vader.” “We have a gyro sensor that allows it to go straight,” Caden explained. “We have motors that make it turn, and then we have the low-friction wheel in the back, which basically makes it so that it doesn’t catch on stuff when it turns. We also have a thing to drop the rock, which is called the payload.”
Mount says they hope to involve additional middle schools in the competition next year, expanding the competition because of the success they’ve seen so far.
The BHSU Underground Campus at Sanford Lab was established for research in many disciplines including physics, biology, geology and environmental physical science, as well as education and outreach opportunities. In addition to the BHSU research conducted at the campus, universities across the nation can submit research ideas and have the opportunity to experiment in the unique environment nearly a mile below ground at the BHSU Underground Campus at Sanford Lab.
“It’s not just BHSU students—any South Dakota student can come underground to conduct research,” Mount explains. “The BHSU Underground Campus is a vehicle to get students underground—it exposes our campus to world-class research.”
BHSU mentors included Allysa Burggraff, freshman education major from Flandreau; Cassandra Carter, senior chemistry major from Arvada, Colo.; Hannah Neumiller, sophomore chemistry major from Spearfish; Hannah Owens, senior chemistry major from Spearfish; Jesse Klein, senior student from Spearfish; Jimmy Pio, sophomore biology major from Sioux Falls; Kerry Tarrant, senior psychology major from Spearfish; Matdalynn Buffington, sophomore exercise science major from Huron; Neal Porter, freshman chemistry major from Spearfish; Sam Hintgen, senior science education major from Spearfish; and Sara Mott, sophomore and biology major from Belle Fourche.