A leg up: Robotics Club members
prepare kids for Lego competition © Nov. 26, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Mechanical engineering student Troy Hardtke helps fifth-grader Krystal Parent prepare a robot for competition.

photo by Jay EricsonMechanical engineering student Troy Hardtke helps fifth-grader Krystal Parent prepare a robot for competition.

Krystal Parent, a fifth-grade student at Central Vermont Catholic School at St. Monica’s in Barre, Vt., had a tough task at hand: She’s trying to raise a house with a robot.

Parent had to equip the robot, built to function in a Lego universe, with the right tools and program it to travel a course. Then, she had to load it with enough weight so it wouldn’t tip over when it encountered a lever to raise the house.

Thanks to the help of Norwich University Robotics Club members, Parent gets closer to her goal with each try. She’s preparing for a robotics contest that’s just four days away.

Norwich students gently coached her, asking questions to get her thinking rather than telling her exactly what to do. Parent looked determined, but frustration was creeping in.

“That house is a lot of points, isn’t it?” asked Troy Hardtke, a third-year mechanical engineering student at the oldest private military college in the country.

“Twenty-five points,” responded Parent.

Other students and teacher Pam Nadeau agreed that a lot of force was needed to turn the lever. She was facing a formidable task, and one that was important for the contest.

“What do you think you should do?” asked Jordan St. Pierre, also a third-year mechanical engineer, and president of the club.

“I don’t know,” said Parent.

“That’s the tough part,” he replied.

The stakes were high for CVCS students. Parent and 19 others are preparing to compete in the qualifying round of the FIRST Robotics Competition for the first time. St. Pierre, Hardtke, and Chris Cote and Ben Randolph have traveled to Barre from Norwich’s Northfield campus every week of the fall 2008 semester to help students learn and prepare.

The children appreciate the help.

“They’ve been helping me with a lot of things that I really needed help on,” said Parent. “Troy has been a really big help and we make a really great team.”

This is the third year Norwich Robotics Club members volunteered their time to CVCS. The previous two years, the youngsters came to Norwich to compete against older students at the end of the semester. This year, CVCS will head to New Hampshire to compete in the FIRST regional competition. FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology], was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and other technology to benefit mankind. Kamen spoke at Norwich a week before the competition, and several CVCS students attended.

The Norwich-CVCS connection came via Norwich Robotics Club’s staff advisor, engineering Professor Ron Lessard. A parishioner at St. Monica’s Church, Lessard organizes the volunteer effort. Students took on the task with great enthusiasm.

For Hardtke, spending time with budding robotics fanatics is a chance to give back for the time adults nurtured his own interests when he was young.

“It is really interesting to see how young minds have all sorts of ideas,” Hardtke said. “And even though they are just learning new things, you can see the potential that they each have. I remember back when I was growing up that there were a lot of people who also helped out, just out of the goodness of their hearts. Being able to do the same always feels great at the end of the day.”

St. Pierre also feels he gets a lot from helping out at St. Monica’s.

“I get enjoyment out of the experience and knowing I am helping others become familiar with robotics,” he said. “Many of the students have become good friends. Also, as a college student, I feel it is important to give back to the community and this is a great way for me to do that.”

Hardtke admitted he might have trouble completing the FIRST course. St. Pierre said they use the same robots the young students program for the competition in some Norwich classes. For the Norwich Robotics Club, however, technology is far more sophisticated.

“It was great being able to play with the toys again, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” Hardtke said, “... being in some of the clubs that Norwich has to offer allows us to play with bigger toys every day.”

“It is a lot of fun playing with Legos again,” St. Pierre added. “As a young kid, I played with Legos every day.”

Nadeau said she is grateful for Norwich’s support, adding that the school, which offers a choice of military and traditional student lifestyle, paid the entry fee for the FIRST competition.

“We wouldn’t have any program at all if it weren’t for them,” Nadeau said. “This is so huge and so overwhelming from an adult’s perspective. They know what they’re doing, and they’re really great.”