LOWER TOWNSHIP - Christine Dizenzo and Billy Bates took their mystical bird for its first flight - walk really - under the glare of judges and strict rules.
The blue feather and glitter-encrusted hippogriff, a mythical creature featured in the Harry Potter books, inched down a plastic folding table, stumbling and falling on its beak several times as the students told each other to move the leg they controlled up or down, forward or backward.
The Absegami High School students took the challenge in stride. When their 20-minute walk was up, the robot, which the team finished Friday night, had gone about 12 inches.
"We were about to go practice with it, but then they called us down to the table," said Bates, 17. "It was like a baby doing a 200 meter dash."
Among the other competitors Saturday at the South Jersey Robot Challenge at Naval Air Station Wildwood were chickens, fire balls, mechanical aliens and random fuzzy creatures with no names. Students from Absegami in Galloway Township, Pilgrim Academy in Galloway, Atlantic Christian School in Egg Harbor Township and Neptune High School in Monmouth County participated. Some had spent months on the project to build a robot from a kit, while others spent only days.
The Southern New Jersey Chapter of Women in Engineering started the competition last year to get students interested in engineering. The competition copied a similar program in Baltimore, spokeswoman Anita Dec said.
"What we want to do is show these students what a graduate engineer would do," she said.
The program helps students improve teamwork and technical skills and gives them a chance to flex their creativity. "Everybody has to work together to make the robot work, not just in the build-up phase, but also in the walk phase," Dec said.
Each robot consisted of four tiny motors, a tangle of wires, several D-cell batteries, paper clips and other materials. Students could decorate the robots however they wished. Some used feathers, glitter, tissue paper, wrapping paper, cardboard, giant eyeballs or even lights. Each robot had two "legs" attached to two motors that moved forward and backward or up and down, and two "skids" - thick copper wires that act as stablizers.
The teams of three to six students each had 20 minutes to walk their robot six feet down a folding table. The robot had to cross two obstacles: wooden dowl rods taped to the surface. If the robot fell or the team had to touch the robot for any reason, they lost points.
Like many of the robots at the competition, the one built by Pilgrim Academy students Caleb Wark and Brian Dickinson did not make it to the end of the course. One of the legs, a thin, threaded rod, was bent slightly, and rather than moving forward, the motor created so much vibration that the robot lost a foot of ground toward the end of the race, Wark said.
"We tried to barrel roll over the last obstacle. That would have given us 50 points," said Wark, 17, of Tuckerton. "I should have replaced the legs. That was our problem."
A small crowd cheered as Absegami students Andrea Weis and Nikunj Prajapati managed to direct their "purple people eater" off the edge of the table.
"That's so cool," Judge Al Heim said as the team eased the robot's legs up and down, left and right. One of the four motors was not working, and Prajapati directed the team's next move.
"Not too far, downward. Lift it, down," Prajapati, 18, told Weis, 17.
The robot stumbled a few times and fell off the table once, with their teammate Kristy Kelly catching it. The team was able to inch the robot down the table nearly to the end, but just before it reached the finish line, the clock ran out. Prajapati gave Weis a consoling hug.
"It was fun and exciting, but sad that we didn't get over the finish line and we were so close," Prajapati said.
Despite not making it to the finish line, Heim praised the group.
"You guys did really well. Your machine worked and functioned like a robot. It walked. That was really cool," he said.
"One of our motors wasn't working," Prajapati responded.
"But you guys knew that, and you worked around it," Heim said. "I see a lot of robots that don't necessarily walk, and yours walked, and that was the goal in this activity."
Winners are expected to be announced Monday.
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