Alex Faulk recently traded having a big birthday party with his friends for a $300 programmable Lego robot.
The fourth-grader, who turned 10 on May 12, also is a member of Cornelius Elementary's robotics team.
He and seven other fourth-graders are the first students in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to participate as a team in the CyberKids Robotics Competition Program, which is being offered as part of the talent development class that serves Academically Intellectually Gifted students. They were selected based on academic scores, classroom performance, leadership and citizenship within the school. The school's robotics program eventually may expand to include other students as well.
CyberKids Robotics is a nonprofit education company based in Lenoir. It is dedicated to improving the science, technology, engineering and math education of students in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. About 70 teams in N.C. compete in local, state and national competitions under CyberKids Robotics.
"We build and program robots to do missions," said Alex. "Right now, we're doing a mission where we make the robot go back and forth using a pivot-turn. I joined because it sounded really fun and you don't normally get to learn how to program a robot in school. You never get it right on the first try, so you change one thing every time until you get it right."
"I joined because I really like robots," said Vicente Maldonado. "My favorite part is when we test the robots and find out if it works or not."
"It's exciting," said Thomas Deal. "You put so much work into it before you finally get it right."
The team will get its official state competition mission on Sept. 3. The state competition will be in January or February at the Greensboro Coliseum, where teams will have two minutes and 30 seconds to rack up as many points as they can. Of the 60 teams that competed in last year's event, 23 of them were CyberKids' teams.
The team will have to complete as many missions as possible while its robot travels around an 8-foot-by-4-foot vinyl "map" filled with various obstacles and landmarks like roads, trees and buildings. Missions range from picking up objects and bringing them back to the map's home base to delivering objects to different sites on the map.
If they make it to the state competition, the team also has to do a research project that includes a five-minute presentation about biomedical engineering, which is the theme of this year's competition. It will make up 25 percent of the team's overall score.
The team also will participate in a technical interview with judges where they'll have to talk about their robot and explain why and how they solved missions.
"It's a very technically challenge competition," said Bill Kent, the team's coach and vice president of development for CyberKids Robotics. "Some of the stuff these kids come up with is ingenious. No two teams solve the problems in the same way. But the main thing we're trying to teach them now is the process that goes into programming a robot."
Diane Price, the talent development teacher at the school, pushed to get the 12-month program at the school. It was approved in February by the school's administration team and received more than $2,100 from Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville.
The program is only possible, Price said, because an outside organization provides all the equipment and instruction needed. The team will meet six times before school ends. It also will meet for a four-day summer camp. When school starts in the fall, it will meet once a week.
"It's a program with a great reputation and no other schools in CMS have done this before, so I really wanted us to be the first," Price said.