Robinson robotics team may be headed to international competition in California

Rick Wagner • Feb 24, 2019 at 9:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Ever wonder how astronauts could deal with the loneliness and isolation of space? A group of Kingsport students did and made an award-winning research project out of it.

A Robinson Middle School robotics team won a first-place research award at a Tennessee competition, acing all research categories, and has been invited to apply for an international competition this summer in California.

Members of the winning team are Alexis Schubert, Riley Adams, Aiden Ponasic, Victor Kitzmiller, Molly Smallwood, Mehdi Izallen, Reid Scott, Seth Wilder, Bladen Hooper and Jacob Price. All are seventh-graders except for sixth-graders Reid, Mehdi and Victor.


In the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville Feb. 9-10,  the Robinson “junior varsity” team of sixth- and seventh-graders presented its research on the problem of psychological responses to isolation in space, such as depression and anxiety. The group was informally called the R & R JV team. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The other Robinson team, which had a win last year, was made up of older students but did not win this year.

After talking with an engineer with SpaceX, truck drivers and a nuclear engineer who served on Navy submarines, the JV team came with the a solution of a virtual reality system that astronauts could use to visit their families and friends back on Earth, explained seventh-grade science teacher Shelby Morris, one of three coaches for the team.

“We originally started with a bunch of different ideas,” Alexis said. “One of them was actually astronaut depression.”

For instance, the astronauts would have control over the robot and see with the robot’s camera their family on Christmas morning, even interacting with people and “talking and communication with the family and friends they’d be missing,” Morris said. Morris said she and the other coaches, volunteer assistant Haleigh Garber and eighth-grade science teacher Daniel Way, “didn’t work with the students telling them what to do” but helped connect them with the folks they contacted and ultimately presented their potential solutions and final solution.

“We were the ones who came up with our idea,” Bladen said. “Originally, it (the solution) was holograms, and we changed it to VR” or virtual reality, he said. Then, the robot was added. All told, he said the team worked for about four months, since the start of the school year until the mid-February competition. Alexis said the submarine nuclear engineer thought the virtual reality idea was a good solution.

Initial solutions included imaging and then holographs of past images of people and places back home before moving to virtual reality and then virtual reality coupled with a robot. The group also did a price estimate of about $3,000 per set-up.


As someone who remembers watching the moon launch and landing in the summer of 1969 on a black-and-white television at age 5, just before kindergarten, I never really thought much about loneliness in space. After all, the astronauts got to the moon and back relatively quickly, and the idea of it taking months and months or years to get to another planet or years and years to the outermost reaches of our solar system didn’t dawn on a 5-year-old boy. There was no space shuttle or International Space Station then, either.

In kindergarten, we took a trip to Mars in the planetarium at Bays Mountain Park and returned in time to get back to school the same day. I later watched “Star Trek” reruns and the good folks on the starship Enterprise always had each other and aliens to keep them company, so I never really thought about it, although traveling at more than the speed of light would sure make long trips shorter. And even the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” had each other and a host of visitors to the island. But I digress.


The team’s work won it first place in the robotics part of the February competition, and the team earned perfect scores in every research category. That earned the team an invitation to apply for the Global Innovation Award and to present during an international competition of FLL in late June in San Jose, Calif. The team also competed with its robot, presentation of strategy and core value but did not win in those or other categories except research.

Bladen said the team will have to present to judges in Kingsport before getting to go to California and that travel finances are still a question, too. Alexis said the plan is that the team will present to a team of judges at the end of March, giving the group time to edit and revise a presentation and maybe make models.

At age 5 in 1969, I don’t know that I would have understood virtual reality. Now a smart phone and goggles can give three-dimensional views of all sorts of things. Of course having live ones and interactive ones sure is different. The only thing I had similar was my old Viewmaster, which was 3-D.

My, how things have changed. Congratulations to some middle school kids who showed us just how much and won an award and a potential trip to the West Coast in the process.

Rick Wagner is the education writer for the Kingpsort Times News. He can be reached at (423) 392-1381 or [email protected]

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