Upstate ‘Narwhals’ compete in global robotics challenge with help from Clemson Extension
Don’t be fooled by their whimsical tie-dyed T-shirts and horned beanies, the Narwhal of Ideas kids are serious when it comes to science.
The Narwhal of Ideas is a team in the 9- to 14-year-old age group of the Due West Robotics program that competes in FIRST LEGO League as one of about 32,000 teams in 88 countries, and a collaboration with Clemson Extension is helping the group of budding young innovators from the Upstate compete on a global stage.
Guided by adult coaches, FIRST LEGO League teams research real-world problems such as food safety, recycling or energy, and are challenged to develop a solution.
This year, the team’s innovation project was required to focus on water, and the Narwhals turned to Clemson Cooperative Extension aquaponics, aquaculture and fisheries specialist Lance Beecher for guidance.
After attending an Extension aquaponics workshop led by Beecher, Due West Robotics director Charles Angel visited Clemson University’s Educational Research Center in Pendleton to inquire about a potential partnership.
The team’s idea for an innovation was to create a dispenser for dry chemicals that would automate the process of balancing the pH in an aquaponics system, and Beecher helped set up a system in an Erskine College greenhouse near the team headquarters in downtown Due West.
With a system in place, the Narwhals devised a robotic mechanism that delivers chemicals into the water, which they monitor remotely via a wireless connection in order to know when to balance the system’s pH — which is a measure of the relative amount of free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions in the water, or in simpler terms, how basic or acidic water is.
“The point of their invention is to create a unique dispenser,” Angel said. “The innovative aspect is that there are not dispensers out there for dry chemicals to automate the process of balancing the pH. The secondary side is an innovative way of packaging the items that would actually be dispensed.”
With that goal in mind, the Narwhals — comprised of students from Cherokee Trail Elementary School, Honea Path Middle School and Dixie High School — took a tour of Clemson University’s packaging science facilities on campus, hoping to glean knowledge for dissolvable packaging to contain their chemicals.
“The idea of the project is to simplify the process of maintaining a functional aquaponics system without as much manual input,” Jeremiah Stichnoth, 13, said.
Tanner Simpson, 13, in his first year on the team, said his goal on the packaging science tour was to learn as much as he could about the details of how to accomplish the team’s project.
“It seems like if you get one detail wrong it will affect the whole process negatively,” he said.
For the previous five seasons, the team was known as the Tornado of Ideas, but after significant turnover to its roster, the team wanted to forge its own identity and settled on a narwhal — a medium-sized toothed whale that possesses a large “tusk” from a protruding canine tooth — for its mascot.
“It’s a whale from the Arctic that has a large tooth that spirals sticking out of the front of its face,” Stichnoth explained.
Led by head coach Sara Wojtkowski, the Narwhals’ season began in August, squaring off against other FIRST LEGO League teams to design, build and program robots using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology, then compete on a table-top playing field.
The innovation project is 25 percent of the team’s judging at competition — with the other portions being robotics, robot design and a core values presentation — and the Narwhals said their visit to Clemson and assistance from Beecher had been helpful in developing their idea.
“We’re trying to learn everything that we need to know — all the variables that go together so we can have a solid prototype,” said first-year team member Sidney Stone, 13.
The team attended the state championship and earned a nomination for the Global Innovation Award, which extended their season and allowed them to continue to work on their project. The Narwhals will put in an application with the details of their project in hopes of being one of 20 teams from around the world selected to travel to San Jose, Calif., as finalists to present the project to judges. First place in the competition wins $20,000 to put toward completing their innovation, while second and third places each earn $5,000, Angel said.
The team’s other members are Clara Angel, 10; Marshall Dunn, 12; Cole Farley, 12; Georgia Wojtkowski, 11, and Savannah Wojtkowski, 13.
“What they are working on is actually something that would help a lot of people in the industry with their systems,” Beecher said. “One of the biggest issues in aquaponics is trying to maintain chemical balance within a system. Overall, I think this would be a pretty neat addition to the industry. In aquaponics, we need to grow more food. So, these are the type of outside-the-box thinking processes that we need to have, and I think it’s a great idea.”
Clemson Extension helps improve the quality of life of South Carolinians by providing unbiased, research-based information through an array of public outreach programs. One of its primary goals is to expose South Carolina youth, such as the Narwhals, to opportunities in agriculture, science, technology, engineering and math.
“In my opinion, this is what Extension is all about,” Beecher said. “This is what we do.”