LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Officially, the cyber engineering students on the Central High School robotics team are called the Louisville Centrons. But on Monday, as more than a dozen students demonstrated the ball-throwing, bar-hanging, 103-pound robot they’re taking to a competition in Knoxville, head robotics coach Jim Gilbert stood back in awe and suggested a new nickname.
“They’re the Wizards of West Chestnut,” said Gilbert, making a reference to Thomas Edison, who briefly lived in Louisville and later earned the nickname, the Wizard of Menlo Park.
But Edison never built anything like these kids. This week, the Centrons will travel to Knoxville to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition. They are the only team from Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and one of two from Louisville.
As part of the competition, the students will maneuver their robot on a course, picking up balls and attempting to shoot them through rings. The robot will also earn points if it can hang on a series of bars.
“Our robot does the task and I think it does it well, so I think we can get fairly high in the qualifications,” said Aiden Roe, a Central senior and the project’s chief engineer.
The students began building the robot in September, but only learned the specific tasks it would have to executive in January. That’s when the long hours started.
It’s taken a “lot of long days and a lot of long nights” to perfect the design, said teacher Chris Brown, who serves as one of the coaches for the Centrons.
He compared supervising the robotics team to coaching sports, with students putting in time after school to collaborate on designing, building, and perfecting the robot. And like sports, this requires practice ahead of the competition. The robot has to be run through drills, allowing the students to find flaws and learn to quickly resolve issues.
“Watching them program and figure out how to do the different things and seeing their success has been super amazing for me and I know it’s super amazing for the kids,” Brown said as a two-foot blue robot with a permanent smile buzzed past him.
Sam Smallwood is one of those kids. A senior and the programming lead on the project, Smallwood said he came to Central because of the Centrons.
“I got my first experience with them in middle school when we went to a competition and they were there,” he said. “So when I was deciding which high school to go to, I came here.”
In the fall, Smallwood will go to college to study computer science. He said building the robot the team is taking to Knoxville has introduced him to a whole other side of programming.
“Especially being the programming lead, I’ve learned a whole bunch about java programming and how to read documentation and figure it out quickly under pressure,” he said.
This year marks the seventh year of existence for the Centrons, which started in 2015 with the assistance of a NASA grant.
“We started small with one little tiny robot kit in the back of the English Department,'' Gilbert said.
Over the years, the program has grown and now operates out of a maker space called “The Colony'' on Central's second floor. Dozens of robots dot the room, some big, some small, and at least one in a bow tie. There's a laser, dozens of computers, and the feeling of a workshop, not a classroom.
Each year, Brown said, the goal is to send several students to the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at UofL. Next year, as many as five will enroll.
It’s a point of pride for Brown, and for Central, which he said is too often written off by people in Louisville.
“A lot of people think if you go past 9th Street, it’s madness,” he said. “It’s really not. We have a lot of good things going on here.”