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BHSU students and local middle schoolers take part in BHSU Underground Robotics Competition

Author: BHSU Communications/Friday, April 5, 2019/Categories: Events, Students, College of Business and Natural Sciences, Community, Events, Faculty, Sanford, 2019

The fourth annual Black Hills State University Underground Robotics Competition included an expanded competition this year among four local middle schools, rather than two as in previous years, doubling the middle school students in attendance.

BHSU students, who serve as scientific mentors to the younger students, took the trip underground at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) in Lead to help maneuver the middle schoolers’ robots in the underground environment.

Collaboration between the middle schoolers and college students prompted imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills as the teams met throughout the year to create and program robots that could successfully run through a predetermined course. For the competition itself, the robots were taken underground to prove their capabilities. Practice runs took place in the classroom, where teams comprised of two middle school students and one BHSU mentor were able to revamp and improve their programmed robots as they saw fit. Adaptability and forward-thinking brought about additional ideas for programming, and the teams adjusted as necessary until everything was just right.

“The middle schoolers were really the ones in charge – they were the ones doing the programming and coming up with the ideas for each of their robots,” BHSU science education student Lily Hoffman, from Mitchell, says, “It was really cool to see what their imaginations came up with, and help them bring the robots to life.”

Then, it was up to the BHSU mentors to operate the robots underground on the 4850 Level of Sanford Lab. The middle school students watched through a live feed on the surface at Sanford Lab as the BHSU students acted as on-site controllers underground. Giving specific directions on which programs to use, middle school students made the call on what actions they thought would yield the best results for their robot. As the robot made its way through the course underground, the students had to actively assess the variability that comes from operating the robot a mile under the surface rather than the predictable terrain of their classroom.

“The underground environment lends an interesting and unique background to the BHSU Underground Robotics Competition. It adds an extra layer of challenge since the robots must be programmed to maneuver the course before they are taken to the 4850 Level. Students must put thought into the reproducibility of their robot's program when it encounters dirt and uneven surfaces in the mine,” says Dr. Brianna Mount, BHSU assistant professor of physics and director of the BHSU Underground Campus at Sanford Lab.

Teams were awarded points for their robot’s ability to navigate the course (which included a ramp and a tunnel) and to pick up and deliver components. Extra points were awarded if the robot was designed with sensors or gears. 

Robert Dahlenburg, an alum of BHSU and science teacher at Southwest Middle School in Rapid City, acted as a student mentor for the BHSU Underground Robotics Competition for two years before his graduation in 2017. Now, he’s able to share that experience with his own students in the robotics club at Southwest, and this time, help direct from the surface.

Dahlenburg says, “It’s easy for someone to look at the EV3 robots and see them as toys, but, when I see them and the students work on them, I see the next generation of engineering. The skills the students are developing and working on now, really are the jobs that will be in high demand over the next decade as automation and robotics grows. The concepts, the problems addressed, they’re essentially the same.”

The competition invites students to use their imaginations and problem solving skills to create functional robots, but that only scratches the surface of what’s going on as middle school and college students alike visit the Sanford Lab.

“One of the big draws for me about this competition is the way it introduces these students to the underground science being done in their backyard,” Dahlenburg says.
While on site at Sanford Lab during the competition day, the middle school students toured the Hoist Room where operators control the “cage” that safely delivered the college students and their robots to the underground. They also learned the basic tenets of the science and technology being explored at Sanford Lab.

Underground, BHSU mentors were given tours of the 4850 Level, which hosts extraordinary projects and experiments that can only be conducted in this underground environment. This included a tour of the BHSU Underground Campus, where students are invited to conduct hands-on undergraduate research while they take classes at BHSU.
“The experience this year did not disappoint,” Dahlenburg says.

Middle Schools participating in this year’s competition:
Belle Fourche Middle School
Lead-Deadwood Middle School
Southwest Middle School
Spearfish Middle School
BHSU student mentors:
Maggie Boever, chemistry major from Dell Rapids
Molly Erickson, integrative genomics major from Rapid City
Lily Hoffman, science education major from Mitchell
Youssef Kaabi, business administration major from Tunisa
Benjamin Parks, corporate communications major from Tacoma, Wash.
Erika Redinger, physical science major from St. Onge
Bethany Reman, integrative genomics major from Whitewood
Cassie Vandewiele, exercise science major from Pierre
Dillon Vanetti, chemistry major from Casper, Wyo.
Kelsey Wood, biology major from Newcastle, Wyo.

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