Terminators

George Cole talks to Rhyl teachers to find out how they got their schools'

robots on national television

When technology teacher Mark Harmsworth was asked by pupils if they could build a robot, he little realised he would appear on national television. "The students wanted us to enter (the BBC series) Robot Wars, but I'd never built a robot before. I felt I could handle the mechanical side of things, but couldn't think about the design," says Harmsworth.

He decided to approach colleague Tony Costa, a supply teacher in the art department. The two teachers formed a partnership and have created seven robots in three years."Tony was enthusiastic and within two days his pupils came back to me with half a dozen designs," says Harmsworth.

The next challenge was funding. Both men teach at Rhyl High School, an 11-18 school with 1,100 students, some from one of the most deprived areas in Wales. Harmsworth began sourcing parts. A local health centre was scrapping motorised wheelchairs so Harmsworth took the lot and cannibalised them for motors, wheels and drive mechanisms. Other local companies contributed off-cuts of metal and plastic and Harmsworth secured a pound;500 grant from ELWA (Education and Learning Wales, www.elwa.ac.uk) It took six months to create the first robot, which Harmsworth, Costa and a small group of pupils built during lunchtimes or after school. Harmsworth and Costa would also work at the weekends. The resulting robot, Twm Trwm - Welsh for "Tom the Heavy" - cost about pound;350 to build and it's design was far from the scrap metal yard. Costa says Twm Trwm was inspired by:

"classical sculpture, Citadel Miniatures, Babylonian Wall Reliefs and the Welsh Dragon".

Robot Wars attracts more than 1,500 potential entrants. Of these, 600 robots are auditioned and 32 take part in the series. Twm Trwm made it on to the third series. Twm Trwm was visually exciting, a multi-coloured, multi-headed beast with twisted limbs and horns. But as a fighter he was no match for the other robots that bashed, burnt and beat him into oblivion.

After taking part in the fourth Robot Wars, and being commended on design, the two teachers discovered BBC robot series Techno Games. "Not only is it cheaper to make the robots for Techno Games, but they don't get destroyed," says Harmsworth. Techno Games requires its robots to carry out a specified task, such as swimming or walking. Rhyl's entrants for the series have included King Kong, a shot-putter, Rasputin, a bicycling dinosaur, Miss Kat Apult, a shot-putter, and Mr S Whim, a swimmer.

All of this is good fun for pupils, but Costa says there are also educational benefits: "It's created a lot of interest and excitement in the school and I now use new materials and electronics in my lessons."

Harmsworth adds that robotics has generated interest in systems and control in his technology lessons.

You can see Rhyl High School's robots at www.robartics.co.uk Contact Mark Harmsworth and Tony Costa at: robartics@another.com

The basics

* Costs: Robots can be built for prices ranging from tens to tens of thousands of pounds. A robot made for Robot Wars will probably cost several hundred pounds, but some built for Techno Games can cost less than pound;100

* Equipment: Basic building materials such as plastic and fibreglass, electronics equipment, mechanical parts, art materials like paint, plus tooling equipment

* Sponsorship: local companies may be able to help with funding, materials and expertise. Educational charities and local agencies may also be a source of funding

* Start with ideas and drawings. Be prepared to change your plans as you go along

* Work with small groups

* The Technology Enhancement Programme (TEP) based at Warwick University is a good source of materials for robotics

* Weight is an important issue. Be sure to check the competition rules

* Check out useful websites www.robartics.co.uk, www.tep.org.uk

www.robotwars.co.uk www.bbc.co.uksciencerobots www.technogames.net

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