Johnston County

‘The March Madness of STEM’

From left, Karsh Agbayani, Reginald Harper, Adrian Wierzbinski and Ethan Smith prepare robot CODI for its next phase of competition at Campbell University on April 2.
From left, Karsh Agbayani, Reginald Harper, Adrian Wierzbinski and Ethan Smith prepare robot CODI for its next phase of competition at Campbell University on April 2.

Hundreds of parts. Lines and lines of code. Six weeks and lots of work.

That’s what it took for Johnston County’s first robotics team, the JoCo RoBos, to build “CODI” the robot from scratch.

The square robot is a sophisticated amalgamation of metal, wire, circuit boards and wheels. It can perform a variety of tasks.

Twenty-nine high school students make up the JoCo RoBos, the county’s inaugural N.C. FIRST robotics team. Starting in January, the students met four days a week after school and on Saturdays to design and build the robot.

The JoCo RoBos put CODI to its first test in March, and the robot perform so well, the team received an invitation to compete April 2-3 at Campbell University .

At that first competition in Raleigh, the Johnston team won the Rookie All-Star Award, which goes to a first-year team that puts forth a strong effort. The JoCo RoBos also received the Pit Safety Award, and team member Jared Glover won the Safety Captain Star of the Day Award.

The team moved on to the Campbell competition, which was the qualifying round for the state contest.

At Campbell, the Johnston students were much like a NASCAR pit crew before the start of a race. Team members crowded around the robot, using tools to make minor changes, replace parts and tinker to increase performance.

Johnston Community College's JoCo RoBos robotics team competed with their robot, "CODI" at Campbell University to qualify to participate in the state championship.

After their tinkering, team members then lifted the robot onto a cart and rolled it out into the queue for competition in Campbell’s Gore Arena. The basketball stadium was filled with robotics teams, officials and fans. Music boomed over speakers, and teams cheered while watching results appear overhead.

Teams lined up for competition on the arena’s floor. In the center was a gated area with medieval towers at each end and obstacles along the way. The robots were tasked with breaching obstacles, crossing seesaw bridges, lifting gates, grabbing “boulders” and launching them at the towers and scaling the towers.

Drive teams directed their robots using a variety of setups, including video game joysticks. Teams awaited the announcer’s call to “Charge” before rushing to grab their controllers and direct their robots to their next tasks under strict time limits.

The stadium echoed with chants and cheers from supporters representing hundreds of high school students. Teams wore matching shirts, and some were in costume – animals, jesters and knights of the robot roundtable.

“It’s like a high school basketball game times 10,” said Reginald Harper, 18, of Clayton High School, a member of the JoCo RoBos’ programming team. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s so loud and exciting, and everyone has so much fun. It’s like the March Madness of STEM.”

The students put in more hours than any of them could count, they said, but they’d do it all again.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” said Emily Byrum, 15, of Smithfield-Selma High School, who served on the strategy team. “I was at softball practice and was running late, so I was rushing, and they were like ‘It’s no big deal.’ But they didn’t understand. I had to be here ... I’m coming back next year.”

While CODI was a case of trial and error for the first-year team, the students said they’re taking away a valuable experience.

“Communication,” several members said in unison.

“We really worked on our communication skills,” Byrum said. “Design didn’t talk to fabrication; fabrication didn’t talk to design – things like that.”

“We all kept pulling in different directions,” said Cole Perkins, 17, of Neuse Charter School, who served on the design team.

“One night we just sat down and figured it all out,” Harper said. “Ever since then, it’s worked.”

At the competition, the team was still working together – even if it was from the sidelines.

“You win together; you lose together,” Harper said. “Everyone is there as a team. Even when you lose, it’s gracious professionalism. It’s like a ‘good game’ type deal.”

“It probably has the best community in any competitive environment,” Perkins said.

“I loved it,” Byrum said. “I will definitely do it again next year.”

While the team did not perform the way it had hoped at Campbell, it still planned to attend the state competition in April 9-10 in Charlotte, said Dawn Dixon, one of the coaches.

“We had a disappointing end of the competition,” Dixon said. “We had mechanical issues, plus we received two penalty cards that significantly depleted our points. The kids fought back with improvements to the robot that allowed us to win both Sunday matches, but the penalties left us at the bottom of the heap.”

At the state contest, the team was scheduled to compete against the other five Rookie All-Star Teams. But CODI would not be part of the competition. Instead, judges were to interview the teams to see which had “a stellar rookie experience,” Dixon said. That team will represent North Carolina at the national competition.

Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett

The JoCo Robos

Here are members of the JoCo RoBos, with their name, school and grade:

Home school – Reichen Agbayani, 9; Karsh Agbayani, 10.

Clayton High School – Will Bean, 12; Reginald Harper Jr., 12.

Johnston County Middle College High School – Hannah Brooke Pearson, 11; Jasur Mirzakhmedov, 12; Alec Pursell, 12.

Smithfield-Selma High School – Emily Byrum, 9.

North Johnston High School – Luke Childers, 10; Kamil Ewais-Orozco, 10; Christian McAllister, 9; Benjamin Meserve, 11; Alexis Thrash, 11.

Johnston County Early College Academy – Troi Dixon, 11; Abraham Flores, 12.

Life Spring Academy – Jared Golver, 10.

Corinth Holders High School – Zach Johns, 11; Eric Johns, 10; Shaun Keys, Corinth Holders, 10; Natalie Plahuta, 10.

Swinney Christian – Isreal McDonald, 9.

Neuse Charter – Cole Perkins, 12; Brapagaon Voyles, Neuse Charter, 10.

Cleveland High School – Zoe E. Ray, 12; Ethan Smith, 10; Amanda Smith, 12.

South Johnston High School – Bailey Sumner, 10.

Here are the faculty and parent coaches:

Johnston Community College – Katherine Stevenson-Chavis, engineering; Aaron Brickman, physics; Brian Worley, advanced technologies; Lance Gooden, mathematics; Maxie Kirby, industrial systems; Kenneth Duncan, welding; Robert Long, welding; Justin Todman, engineering and machining; Adrian Wierzbinski, engineering; Dwight Barnes, machining.

Parents – Bryan Johns, project management and fabrication; Linda Johns, engineering; Steve Agbayani, engineering.