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SMITHFIELD — Visitors at the recent Ham & Yam Festival in downtown Smithfield got to see a manmade robot, not unlike R2-D2 of “Star Wars” fame, being maneuvered along the street by Smithfield-Selma High School students.
The robot, named POTATO, was at the booth sponsored by the Team 6004 (F(x) that had been built by the FIRST robotics competition team at the school.
POTATO is an acronym for Planet Observation Through Analytical and Technological Outcomes, while the group that created it takes its name, FIRST, from For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
According to a brochure distributed at the booth, FIRST is a worldwide organization designed “to inspire innovation and leadership through engaging, hands-on robotics challenges developed to ignite curiosity and passion in students in grades K-12.”
“Our purpose in the club is to spread STEM any way we can,” said team co-captain Kaylee Myer, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.
“It is not a class but there is a lot of learning,” said team member Colby Fletcher. “I have learned more hands-on with projects in the club than I would have sitting in a classroom.”
The club meets after school. The program began as a robot club at Smithfield-Selma in 2015 and the first year saw seven or eight students sign up.
The first year, students began with small projects. Now the team is building robots that compete against those designed by club members at other schools. Smithfield-Selma began competing in January 2016.
Competition sites have included Pembroke University, Campbell University, East Carolina University and several high schools throughout the state.
The club consists of 12 members this year.
According to Myer, all the students in the club have built relationships with other teams in the state during the competitions and the teams tend to help each other out.
Walter Myer is one of the team coaches along with Troy Brindle, both of whom have children participating in the program.
“We have seniors in the club that are heading to college in a few weeks,” said Walter Myer. “We look forward to them being successful in college and to continue as mentors for robotic teams in the future.
“FIRST teaches the kids to try things they would not have tried otherwise, to step out of their shells and interact with other kids and to work together as a team to accomplish a common goal,” said Brindle.
“The Ham & Yam Festival is always a lot of fun for visitors and we get to show what we have done,” said Leigh Dement, a rising sophomore at North Carolina State University majoring in chemistry and a former member of the Smithfield-Selma FIRST team who now serves as a club mentor.
“One person at the festival said this was all over her head and an older man wanted to know if there was a robot camp for him,” said Myer.