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Murray Journal

AMES students seek national student title in system control technology

Jun 04, 2024 01:37PM ● By Julie Slama

AMES students Andy Grzybowski and Ethan Thai demonstrate their state-winning prototype in the Technology Student Association’s system control technology category. Not pictured is team member Khang Tran. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Weeks before the end of the school year, typical high school seniors may be ensuring they’ve completed high school requirements, looking for college acceptance letters and hoping credits transfer to college, taking final exams, finding jobs and looking forward to commencement exercises.

However, the AMES team of seniors Ethan Thai, Andy Grzybowski and Khang Tran, had some added pressure those last few weeks. As the state Technology Student Association’s champions in system control technology, they were putting extra time into programming and pre-building mechanisms that they could possibly use in the national contest.

“We’re using Python because that allows our programming to be straightforward,” Grzybowski said. “We also want to pre-build a couple of mechanisms. I made a mechanism to connect the motor (during the state competition) that was very time consuming. It took me an hour to figure it out. So, by having that sort of thing built and having some extra framed pieces, we won’t have to improvise as much and will be able to use our time wisely.”

The national 2024 convention, “Evolution of Excellence,” that host 40 different events for high school students, will be June 26-30 in Orlando. According to TSA, there are about 300,000 middle and high school student members who attend 2,300 schools in 48 states. Of those, 100% are likely to graduate from high school and 75% are college bound. 

In the contest, the team will have three hours to develop a solution to an industrial problem, which will be presented to them at the conference. They will analyze the problem, build a computer-controlled mechanical model, program the model, demonstrate the programming and mechanical features of the model-solution in an interview, and provide instructions for evaluators to operate the model. The judges are professionals from the industry.

The AMES team, advised by technology teacher Vaughn Webster, has learned some tricks from their first contest, which they forgot a pencil.

Thai, who has been on the team for three years, said that year, “our documentation was done in crayon. Last year, we managed to return to the podium. This year, we put it all together. Our goal is to win.”

This is the third year that AMES has had a team compete nationally, Webster said.

“Our team has been twice before,” he said. “First time was at Memphis; we took seventh overall. The last time we went to Atlanta and finished fourth overall.”

At state this year, the team was given an objective when they reached the competition. They developed a prototype of a conveyor belt system to sort and classify objects using the LEGO MINDSTORMS they brought with them. 

“It’s very realistic,” Grzybowski said. “I work part time as an automation engineer at a small company and this bears some similarities to our automating systems which can run with no human input after the system has been set up. It’s a robot to machine. We designed it, prototyped it and programed and tested it. It’s an absolute blast.”

He also works as a machinist for the University of Utah and wants to become a physicist.

While Grzybowski was responsible for the mechanical system, Thai was over programming the device. He found it challenging because MINDSTORMS’ system didn’t allow commenting.

“That’s what the judges want the teams to clearly demonstrate; we have to document how to go about solving the problem with blueprints and a prototype,” he said. “Block coding is like sequential steps, it’s really hard to have it come together to create a system. So, we worked around that and created pseudocode, which is where I just wrote down in English step by step what the code does.”

Thai, who is the school’s TSA vice president, plans to attend the U of U’s College of Engineering majoring in computer science in the fall.

Tran was mostly responsible for most of the team’s documentation, Grzybowski said.

“As we were working through it, he was writing down what we’re doing. He also just pointed out obvious flaws with what we were doing. He compiled our information and thought process so when we were done, we handed that paper to judges for our documentation. It was organized, so it was easy for them to understand,” he said. 

Their documentation also included annotated sketches and diagrams and instructions for operating the machine.

Several other teams placed in the top 10 in other events, Webster said.

“What I like about TSA is the diversity of events and the leadership,” he said. “There are events that span a variety of digital art, engineering, construction, manufacturing, aeronautics. There are many different STEM opportunities. Then, it teaches leadership. Within our chapter, we have six different officers and then, there are state officers as well. They learn responsibilities and how to best lead their peers. It’s a great opportunity for our students.”λ