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Robotics team beats older competition

By From Metrowest Daily News

By Lisa Gentes, Daily News Staff

SOUTHBOROUGH -- A group of robot-building youngsters on the Neary School Botball Team qualified for the nationals after beating 15 other teams, including high-schoolers, to become the New England champs.

    The five-member crew of 8- to 12-year-old students entered its two homemade robots in the competition held at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell on April 8. They competed against middle school and high school teams from across the region, which included Ashland, Waltham and Wellesley high schools.
    The New England regional competition was organized by two professors who work with the Botball program. Holly Yanco of UMass-Lowell and Karl Wurst of Worcester State College ran the event, which attracted about 160 student participants.
    Botball is a robotics competition where teams design, build, and program two robots that work together to score points on playing fields. The games change every year.
    Now, the young team is qualified for the national competition in July in Oklahoma.
    "They won everything and were undefeated," said Susan Abend, coach of the young team. "I’m super proud of these guys. They weren’t expecting to win, they just wanted to learn."
    The team includes Jeremy Abend, 11, Justin Averback, 11, and Peter Scorzelli, 10, all Neary Middle School students; Abhinav Venigalla, 8, a Woodward Elementary School student; and Joshua Heinzl, 12, who is home-schooled in Windham, N.H., and joined the team after meeting the Neary coach at a robotics event.
    The kids spent eight weeks putting the robots together from "a big bucket of parts," working in three- to five-hours shifts twice a week at Abend’s house. As well as her son Jeremy being on the team, Abend’s younger daughter Mandy, 9, is involved with the Southborough Robotics League, which is three years old.
    "They put in an incredible effort," the coach said. "They were absolutely determined."
    The kids helped teach each other, showed great sportsmanship, which "was part of the reason they were able to win," she said.
    The Neary Team reprogrammed their robot "on the fly" at the competition in order to beat out their opponents and score more points, she said.
    Abend said her goal for her young team was to "learn more about mechanical design and programming language...winning this competition far exceeded my expectations."
    The competition also teaches the children public speaking skills and poise, she said.
    Jenny Grigsby, public outreach coordinator for Kiss Institute for Practical Robotics, which runs the Botball competitions, agreed.
    "I think they gain an overall confidence in themselves and being creative with technology," said Grigsby of the Norman, Okla.-based nonprofit.
    Many students have never been exposed to such hands-on science, she said.
    "We find through hands-on learning, they really can be creative with high technology," she said. "It’s a different sort of learning...and there are lots of facets that anybody could get involved in and find an interest in."
    Abend said the team is considering attending the three-day July competition in Norman, Okla. However, many of the children are in summer camp during that time, which could pose a problem, she said. "We didn’t expect this at all," she said.
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