On May 19, the Indiana Area Junior High School hosted its second annual Combat Bots competition, believed to be one of the only such programs for students at the middle school level (ages 11-13).
The idea was born in fall 2021, when building principal Michael Minnick asked his junior high technology teachers if a battle bots style class was possible. Michael Dolges and Scott Herrington responded with a resounding “YES!”
With approval from central administration and the Indiana Area School District Board of School Directors, Dolges and Herrington developed a full year course, which would go on to involve more than 24 students (4 bot teams of 6 students). The class includes true cross-sectional representation of students among grades 6 through 8, with and without IEP’s, GIEP’s and representing all genders and ethnic backgrounds.
The year round class teaches many STEM concepts, but – more importantly – it gets students excited about STEM concepts! Students begin by researching and designing an original bot. Once a design has been chosen, they learn to use the software AutoDesk Inventor to make engineering drawings (both orthographic and isometric), select materials and analyze weight.
Students then learn 3-D printing and how to make a prototype. Once the prototype and
materials analysis processes are complete, students are required to take safety tests on various machines they may use in the manufacturing of their bot. When they pass their safety tests, they begin selecting materials and cutting the materials to size.
Students use UHMW (ultra high molecular weight plastic) and polycarbonate for their chassis. They select screw sizes and minor diameters and tap their holes for assembly. They must
also select brushed or brushless motors for their drive and weapon, learn to solder, and make wiring connections. They learn electrical theory and make their own wiring diagram and harnesses. Finally, students must configure a remote to operate their bot. During this entire process, the students must document their work in a portfolio as a writing component. Portfolios include weapon and drive systems details, safety plan, engineering drawings of each part, wiring diagram, bill of materials and the project timeline.
A program this exciting had to be shared, so the teachers decided to start a league and invite surrounding school districts. “We would like as many students as possible to benefit from this experience,” notes Herrington. They decided on the name “Southwest PA Combat Bots Middle School” and opted for a six pound weight limit while drafting the league rules, technical
specifications and competition guidelines. These were purposefully written so a typical middle school Industrial Arts/Tech Ed lab could build a competitive bot.
“We also encourage schools to partner with a local CTC (county technology center) or business for any process the school cannot do.” The Indiana Area Junior High School reached out to the Indiana County Technology Center (ICTC) to work with their students to help them machine their weapons, and they were excited to help.
ICTC has a CNC capability, and with a 1 pound weapon spinning between 6,500-10,000 rpm, balance is important! The IJHS students also visit ICTC to watch their designs being
Donations from Martin’s and S&T Bank provided the funding to build an arena and 4 bots in the inaugural year. The first competition in May 2022 included teams from Homer-Center as well as Indiana Area and offered awards for the double elimination combat tournament, portfolio documentation, King of the Arena honors, and a Grand Champion that was determined by combining the score from the double elimination tournament and the portfolio documentation. Each year, the Grand Champions’ team name, school and year will be denoted on a traveling trophy. (Note: Both the 2022 and 2023 competitions were live streamed and can be viewed on YouTube.)
This year, there were three school districts participating in addition to Indiana Area: Homer Center, River Valley and Freeport. First Commonwealth Bank generously provided funding to support the 2023 competition, which produced the following champions: The 2023 Tournament Champion team was Juggernaut (Indiana); the Portfolio Champion team was MegaByte (Indiana); the King of the Arena Champion team was Stinger (Freeport); and the the Grand Champion team was Magnum. With so many teams involved, organizers and students, alike, agree that it was a smashing success!