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Robot, experts share value of STEM

Stuart Hunt, left, Johnny Rockett, center, and Sarah Swank work Staci the robot.
Stuart Hunt, left, Johnny Rockett, center, and Sarah Swank work Staci the robot.

Staci the robot is more than 6 feet tall, can roll front to back and side to side, and has a mounted camera so its handlers can control it while seeing what it sees.

Its most elaborate features are its hook and wheels, created in part by a 3D printer at Cary Academy, where a team of robotics students, including Stuart Hunt, Johnny Rockett, Katie Barbrey and Sarah Swank, helped build the robot from scratch.

“There are 3D-printed spacers in our gearboxes to make them fit right,” Katie said. “We didn’t have all the right pieces so we 3D-printed some.”

As Staci picked up and stacked large plastic containers Thursday night at STEMology, an event that celebrated students and teachers proficient in science, technology, engineering and math, attendees were given a glimpse of what students are learning, excelling in and producing at STEM programs around the Triangle.

STEMology, held at the Marriott Raleigh City Center in downtown Raleigh and hosted by The News & Observer and Bayer CropScience, featured student demonstrations and displays along with a panel discussion with STEM experts that touched on topics such as the arts and farming.

Panelists included: Zach Clayton, CEO of Three Ships digital marketing agency; Marie Hopper, executive director of North Carolina FIRST robotics; Steve Parrott, president of WakeEd Partnership; Caroline McCullen, director of education initiatives at SAS; Dr. Cedric Bright, assistant dean of admissions and associate professor of medicine at UNC Chapel Hill; and Inci Dannenberg, vice president for commercial operations at Bayer CropScience.

It was moderated by John Drescher, The News & Observer’s executive editor.

About 150 people attended the event that also honored those featured in The N&O’s eight-week “Stellar in STEM” series, which focused on nine high-achieving STEM students in the area.

The consensus of the STEMology panel was that the modern STEM student should possess critical thinking skills, a design background and a don’t-quit attitude when trying to be innovative.

About 100 feet away, Staci the robot showed a clear example of what that means.

Stuart, Johnny, Katie and Sarah, Cary Academy seniors who are part of the school’s robotics team and helped create the robot earlier this year, have embraced the school’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, which aims to inspire students’ interest and participation in science and technology.

The robotics group collaborated on the robot, which they used to reach the semifinals of the North Carolina FIRST Robotics Competition regional in March. The team had six weeks to put it together.

Creating the robot

When Stuart, Johnny, Katie, Sarah and the rest of the team needed unique parts such as hooks and wheels for the robot, they used their design skills and a 3D printer.

“One of the most prominent features are the hooks which were 3D-printed,” Stuart said of the robot. “We designed them electronically and then were able to quickly print out our designs and print (the parts). Through this process we were able to do some rapid prototyping and try the design. If it didn’t work we knew exactly how to fix it. ... It allowed us to develop some really nice working hooks.”

After nine or 10 prototypes, the team created a suitable hook that would be able to fit around the robot’s chain and handle the weight and height of the plastic containers it was trying to lift.

“The hook had to be broken in two pieces to mount on either side of chain,” Stuart said. “We took one of the hooks and sawed it in half and mounted it on each side. With prototyping we made it our next version, properly mounted on each side of chain.”

Printing each version of the hooks took many hours, and due to the school’s hazard policy, it had to be done during school hours.

The robot has a mechano drivetrain, and its wheels have small cylinders attached to them, giving it a unique design that allows it unlimited movement back and forth and from side to side.

“Basically it’s a wheel with smaller wheels on top of it,” Johnny said. “When you turn them against each other they want to go with the grain of the wheel. Since the rollers on the wheel are angled like an ‘X,’ it goes sideways to go with the grain.”

The team had trouble finding compatible parts for the wheels, too, so they again turned to the 3D printer to design and create what they needed — an example of the critical thinking skills, design background and don’t-quit attitude discussed by the STEMology panel.

“The piece we were looking for didn’t exist,” Johnny said. “We had to make it ourselves.”

Sam Newkirk: 919-836-2844