Blair's Teams Place and Impress in ION's Mini-Urban Challenge

by Ashley Yuen '13

“So, do you want to build LEGO robots?” magnet junior Tatyana Gubin asks a few of her robotics friends one day, hoping to garner enough interest to form a team to join her in the Institute of Navigation (ION)’s mini-urban challenge.  A relatively new competition, ION’s mini-urban challenge is a national competition that challenges high school students to design and operate a robotic car autonomously through a model LEGO city. Gubin’s hard work and dedication led to the formation of Montgomery Blair High School’s first ever teams to compete in this event.

Preparing for competition
On March 17, 2012, Blair sent two teams, team Fuzzy Logic and team TNT, to compete in the regional competition.  The two teams were up against about thirty other teams from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Fuzzy Logic, lead by team captain Tatyana Gubin, placed third overall and received the Best Presentation award, and TNT, lead by team captain and magnet senior Justin Yu, received the Best in Show award. Although neither team will be moving on to compete in the nationals this year, Mr. Pham, the sponsor, says he is proud of them: “We did really good [sic]…this was our first year doing it.”

According to magnet junior and Fuzzy Logic team member John Shi, the teams “began [preparing] in October when Tatyana started rounding up people.” Gubin had heard about the competition when Mr. Pham had brought it up briefly in conversation. “So then I put the whole thing together,” Gubin says. “Oh god, [it was] so much work.”  She was able to gather a diverse group of twenty students, who split into two teams. Fuzzy Logic consisted of seniors David Kaufman, Richard Lin,  Daniel Muskin-Pierret, and Philip Sequeira, juniors Tatyana Gubin, Lisha Ruan, Audrey Shi, and John Shi, and sophomores Evan Feinburg and Hannah Tsai. Team TNT consisted of senior Justin Yu, juniors Kiran Matharu, Linda Kang, and Bowen Zhi, sophomores Isha Darbari, Callie Deng, and Peter Peng, and freshmen Emily Guthrie and Sarah Wagner. Team members stayed after school and spent their lunch periods building and testing their rovers. The rovers were completed in December, and the rest of the time leading up the competition was spent on the programming, testing, and presentation.

On competition day, the scores were determined by the success of the rove and the presentations. The objective of the rove was to park the car, which was developed by LEGO MINDSTORMS Education kits, in six different parking spaces and make it back home. Students had to program their cars to navigate the color-coded map and adhere to certain rules, like stopping on the color red and staying on the one-way roads. Many teams encountered problems here, including Fuzzy Logic. “The problem was that our rover would not go in a loop, but the six parking spots required us to go through that loop. So in the end we decided to cut it out [of our course],” Shi says. Their team sacrificed 50 points by missing the last parking space, which gave the other teams, who had found ways around the problem, a 50 point lead.

Rover in action
However, Fuzzy Logic made up for many of the points with their outstanding presentation that made a lasting impression on the judges. Their presentation had an animation of the rover rebuilding itself, a video of their rover working and parking on the test track, and a well-made animation of their rover in their ending credits. “They [the judges] said in all their years they had never seen something like that,” Shi says. “The judges were really impressed, and they thought our presentation was amazing.” One of the judges was so pleased, that she asked how both of the teams from Blair were so good. Fuzzy Logic replied, “It’s because we know what goes into a good presentation.” They alluded to the Blair Magnet Program and how experiences like the freshmen “Chem R and E” project helped them develop these skills. In addition, Team TNT, on top of their excellent presentation, won best in show for their handmade dynamite decorations.

Team Fuzzy Logic plans on competing again next year, this time with first place in mind. “We consider it our first year…we started from zero,” says Shi. “We plan on winning now that we know the little tricks.” The teams will have to be adjusted since the seniors are graduating, but current team members are comforted by the fact that most of the hard work has already been done. Like many other teams, they will now be able to reuse large parts of their code and not have to build a rover from scratch. They also plan on working earlier and buying better supplies such as rechargeable batteries.

There is plenty of space for improvement for Blair’s teams, and also space for many new team members as well. Magnet junior and TNT team member Linda Kang recommends that people try this competition out next year: “It’s a great experience and especially gets you to work together and cooperate.”