A deluge? An unexpected ramp? Debris in the road? Teens design robotic cars tested on obstacle course

Conner Schroeder, a senior at Guilford High School in Rockford was prepared for minor fog. But he and his teammates were unprepared for a “torrential rain” on the obstacle course.

Knowing there wasn’t much they could do, they made a last-minute modification by putting plastic wrap over the sensitive circuitry and batteries in the autonomous model vehicle they had built. If the sensors malfunctioned from the onslaught of water, the vehicle might still be able to finish the obstacle course, he said.

The Guilford vehicle overcame bumps in the road, a tunnel, a ramp and, of course, the downpour to win first place in the Performance Category of the Argonne High School Autonomous Vehicle Competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

“While we had a lot more planned, I’m still very proud of what we completed in the time given, and we hope to accomplish even more next year,” Schroeder said.

“The energy of the museum, coupled with the excitement of all the students, was electric and I noticed the crowd growing quickly and steadily increasing once the teams started competing. The entire rotunda was full of spectators and enthusiasm.” — Craig Corcoran, Guilford High School teacher and team coach

Schroeder was among 40 students, representing eight high schools around Illinois, who helped to turn a portion of the Griffin Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago into an obstacle course on April 20. The free event promised trophies and bragging rights — but covertly taught participants about teamwork, competition, engineering and problem-solving.

The competition took place in the museum’s main rotunda, where the public could watch the action and talk with students about their specially designed autonomous models, said Argonne STEM Education Partnership and Outreach Manager Jessica Burgess, who also was the event’s master of ceremonies.

“There was a lot of cheering for the cars, especially when cars made it past a hard obstacle,” said Burgess. “They also held their breath a lot if their vehicle was coming up to an obstacle; then there was a round of applause when it cleared the obstacle. There was a lot of anticipation, even if something happened and they needed to fix the problem. They kept cheering on their car, all while the public walked around and watched.”

Before building the vehicles, students were required to write a proposal and budget, which listed team members, project timeline and needed supplies. It helped to teach the students what real scientists and engineers do in anticipation of their projects. The Argonne instructions also said the parts needed to build the vehicle should not exceed $150. Argonne then provided the materials and shipped them in advance to the teams.

The instructions specified height, width and length limits. Also, a 3-inch-tall, 3D printed “person,” with the word “Argonne” printed on its side would be in the driver’s seat to front the new-wave vehicle. So, some students used rubber bands, zip ties or even a cockpit-style lid over the head of the “driver” to ensure it would stay seated to comply with regulations. To give it a more real feel, some participants named their driver or decorated it.

Students then focused on how to build a small electric autonomous vehicle that could be tested on a maze-like obstacle course. The catch? The obstacle course was only revealed on competition day. A 10-by-12-foot track was then built at the museum with wooden wall perimeters, and internal walls were made of thin metal that were strategically placed to create a maze from start to finish. Students were warned their vehicles would face obstacles on the test road, such as dowels tossed onto the road, rain, a dark tunnel and the sudden appearance of a ramp.

Craig Corcoran, who teaches Project Lead the Way engineering classes at Guilford and was the team coach, said the most memorable part was when their vehicle performed better than expected on the obstacle course, especially when the water hit.

“We survived!” said Cocoran. “I think the jubilation was both the speed at which the robot completed the course and the survival of the water deluge. As a coach, I would like to reference the overwhelming fear when the students saw the bucket of water and asked, ‘What was that for?’ Having electronics and pouring water did not seem like a good match. The energy of the museum, coupled with the excitement of all the students, was electric, and I noticed the crowd growing quickly and steadily increasing once the teams started competing. The entire rotunda was full of spectators and enthusiasm.”

First, second and third place teams received trophies and medals. All participants earned competition certificates.

Design Category winners were: first place, Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort; second place, Benet Academy High School in Lisle; and third place, Jones College Prep in Chicago.

Performance Category winners were: first place, Guilford High School; second place, Jones College Prep; and third place, Lincoln-Way East.

Other participating schools included Kenwood Academy in Chicago, Joliet Township High School, Maine West High School in Des Plaines, and Infinity Math, Science & Technology High School in Chicago.

The Argonne High School Autonomous Vehicle Competition was funded by Argonne’s Science and Technology Partnerships and Outreach directorate.

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