At LHS, applied physics students flex their robotic arms

LACONIA — Members of Laconia High School's applied physics class got to use hydraulically controlled robotic arms to do some precision lifting Monday morning.
One team of students, Trevor Blake, Andrew West and Michael Hodge, all juniors, were using the arm they put together to pick up thumbtacks by the slender tack end and then drop them into a soda can. Nearby, seniors Christian Miles, Ben Ainsworth and Tom Nickerson used their arm to lift and nestle small metal cups inside each other.
Another team of students, Richard Humphries, Tyler Reichel and Dillon Ellsworth tried to manipulate kinetic balls of energy while yet another team, made up of Josh Mariano, Brian Englesen, Tristan Jerrier and Rose Therrien, were using a magnet to lift 10 thumbtacks at a time and deposit them in a lab beaker.
The robotic arms are made from kits that the teams assembled last week and they are moved by applying pressure to liquid-filled syringes which are connected by tubes to the hand-like gripping devices and lifting parts of the arms, helping give the students insight into fluid dynamics and the principles which make things in the real world actually work.
''They're learning the science behind fluid dynamics and dong it in a very hands-on way'' says their teacher Jo-Ann Gilbert, who says that the students' first exposure to those principles came earlier this year with a log splitter.
Students last week put together the robotic kits, mounting them on rectangular wooden 2 by 4 blocks, and made their own modifications to them once they started to experiment with them, adding elastics wrapped around the robotic hands in one instance to give them a better grip. They then designed tasks for them, which had to be accomplished in less than five minutes. Monday they were timing themselves on how fast they completed those tasks and then moving on to the other student-built robots to see how well they could perform on those challenges.
''We've got this pretty much down to a science,'' said Ellsworth, who said that the smooth, round surface of the kinetic energy balls made them difficult to grip at first and required precision maneuvering by the operators of the robot arms.
Rose Therrien observed that one of the keys to getting good performance from the robot arms was ''filling up the syringes so there are no air bubbles in them. If they have bubbles, they don't move smoothly or have a strong grip.''
Gilbert said that unlike most of the other challenges that the class has undertaken during the course of the first term, kits were used for this challenge. Other projects have included building CO2 propelled dragsters, designing rockets for launch, and solar cars and that the class will also be building a solar oven.
''The students love these kind of hands on challenges and it really gets them involved. It's also fostered a lot of cooperation because they all help each other out and learn a lot from what the other teams are doing. They're learning that it takes practice and the good use of technology to make things work the way you want them to,'' said Gilbert.