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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Halftime in Old Lyme: where the robot made free throws

    Old Lyme — In the pantheon of gimmicky halftime shows, the immortal "Red Panda" was thought to retire the trophy, unless one can conjure an act more creative than a woman mounting a unicycle, balancing the pedals with her left foot and flipping bowls into a stack on her head.

    Memoranda for the Red Panda: You've got some competition in Old Lyme, with this student-made robot that makes free throws.

    To type again for purposes of clarity: a student-made robot that makes free throws.

    Indeed, this was the halftime show in Old Lyme last week, perhaps the most interesting 10-minute respite our corner of the world has experienced in quite some time. About a half-dozen Old Lyme students took the court at halftime of the girls' basketball state tournament game to introduce, "Starting Over," a robot created in the extracurricular First Robotics class that became part of a halftime free throw shooting contest with a student.

    Ah, the education of our children appears in good hands after all.

    "The purpose of the program," Old Lyme Tech Ed teacher Bill Derry said, "is to show kids how much fun engineering can be."

    A primer on the program: The "FIRST" part of First Robotics stands "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." It was founded in 1989 as a non-profit global robotics community that introduces students to team-based robotics programs, helped along by volunteers, educators, and sponsors that include more than 200 of the Fortune 500 companies.

    The students of Old Lyme call themselves "Techno Ticks," a clever way to meld the group's technological ambitions with a means to identify their community, made famous — or infamous — by Lyme Disease. Techno Ticks, because of its successes and willingness to help other such programs begin, has earned the program's "Hall of Fame" designation.

    Here is this year's challenge, "Rapid React," straight from the First Robotics website: "Teams must use innovative engineering, creative thinking, and teamwork to reimagine the future of safe, high-speed travel, and lightning-fast deliveries to propel the next evolution of transportation forward — in this world and beyond."

    Techno Ticks, working nights since Jan. 8, created "Starting Over," a robot named after Chris Stapleton's song, surely applicable to the hope of a societal restart after COVID — and certainly sustaining the line in the song, "the hard roads are the ones worth choosing."

    "Starting Over" has a 32-by-28 inch base and looks like a push lawn mower with homage paid to a snowblower, because of its hood with a shooter.

    "Building it was like a puzzle," student Anna Davis said.

    "A great thing about this is that you learn from doing," student Marielle Mather said.

    During the halftime show, student Abby Speckhals assumed the controls of a sizeable panel and moved "Starting Over" to the free throw line against student Jim Creagan. Young Mr. Creagan was quite entertaining as well, shushing his friends in the student section after he made a free throw. So much for "one shot wonder" and "stick to baseball."

    While Creagan shot free throws the human way, the ball emerged from the snowblower shoot in his robotic counterpart. "Starting Over" made two.

    "We practiced in the gym two days before and we hand positioned it at the line," Speckhals said. "During the game, we eyeballed it."

    What the crowd did not see: "Starting Over's" other talents. At the formal competition, the robot will try its role as a gymnast.

    "We'll have (the robot) climb series of monkey bars on a diagonal," student (and girls' basketball player) Melanie Warren said. "The robot has to pull itself up to the monkey bar and climb across."

    This just in: Don't bet against it.

    The crowd at the game gave Techno Ticks appreciative applause. The community approving of a true community project.

    "One of the best parts about this are the adult mentors," Derry said. "This isn't just Mr. Derry and Mr. Goss (fellow Old Lyme Tech Ed teacher Jonathan Goss) doing this. There are professional engineers, architects and electricians that work with the kids every night. It's first-hand experience of what it might be if you're in the world of engineering.

    "The kids have had huge success in engineering programs in college," Derry said. "Unlike other kids going there with the experience of science class, these kids start learning it from freshman year. By the time they're seniors, they're running everything and designing robots."

    The old line goes that the definition of an engineer is someone who solves a problem you didn't know you had in a way you don't understand. That's how they got to be engineers. But maybe Derry is on to something here with his premise that engineering can be fun. Sure is in Old Lyme.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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