Robotichauns put ‘million-dollar’ equipment to good use


WORKING WITH BOTS A member of Knoxville Catholic High School’s robotics engineering team, the Robotichauns, peers through material the team is using to build a robot for competition in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition for Knox-area students. The students are competing against other teams throughout the region for the top robot spot and are learning key skills in the process. Photo by Stephanie Richer

When Dr. Lonnie Love of Oak Ridge National Laboratory asked “why would anybody in their right mind let high school kids work with million-dollar pieces of equipment,” the answer could be found with a group of Knoxville Catholic High School students.

Dr. Love posed the question at the Jan. 5 kickoff for this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition. Knoxville Catholic’s robotics team —the Robotichauns—were eagerly anticipating what this year’s challenge would be. FIRST is a non-profit organization, founded in 1989, to inspire young students’ interests and participation in science and technology.

Last year, the competitor’s robots had to shoot basketballs and balance on a lever board. The Robotichauns came in fourth place at the Smoky Mountains regional competition last year, just missing qualifying for competition at the national level.

FIRST has upped the ante this year with its challenge called “Ultimate Ascent,” where the Robotichauns must build and program a robot to toss Frisbees into targets and climb pyramids while also operating defensively to prevent other schools’ robots from doing the same.

“I’m really excited for this one,” student John Simmins said. “As soon as I saw it I started thinking of really good ideas.”

And the ideas need to come quickly, since each team only has until Feb. 19 to design, build, and test their robot.

Until that time, the Robotichauns will be spending each weeknight and all day on Saturdays at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Lab, where mentors and safety engineers are on hand to assist the students.

According to the KCHS team’s faculty coordinator, physics teacher Doug Parris, this year’s team is one of the largest, with 25 student members.

This year’s KCHS team also is more balanced, with 11 students and four of seven adult mentors being female.

The Robotichauns first will compete at a regional match in Raleigh, N.C., March 14-16. This will be followed by the Smoky Mountain regional at the Knoxville Convention Center March 28-30. The timing of the latter regional competition means the team members will be spending their Easter break putting their robot through its paces.

Each Robotichaun plays a role on the team, whether it is as a computer programmer, safety officer, robot driver, or working to market the team.

While students with an interest in the physical sciences make up a sizeable portion of the team, students with other talents aren’t discouraged from joining, especially since the experience provides students the opportunity to develop skills in organization, planning, and teamwork.

The team also has been busy with fundraising because it must raise the money needed for parts, equipment, team shirts, travel and food. Online donations may be made on the team’s website at

Dr. Love answered his own question.

The high schools are encouraged to work with “million dollar pieces of equipment” for two reasons: to have more students enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and to return strength to United States manufacturing.

The Robotichauns are helping to make that a reality and reverse the trend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.