The goal: win a game of tic-tac-toe.

Achieving this goal may be harder than it looks because the game set for this Saturday at Missouri University of Science and Technology will be played by robots and involve pegs and rings, not paper and pencil.

The robots that will play have been created, designed, engineered and built by students at Rolla Junior High and Rolla High School.

In fact, two of the 36 teams expected to take part in the event known as the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), a statewide robotics competition, are from Rolla and a third team of Rolla students will be an alternate, which may also attend.

This school year marks the second year that RHS has hosted a robotics team.

The two teams that earned a spot at the state contest this year are the Rolla Patriots, which competed in both the state and world robotics competitions last year, and the Maniacal Mechanics, a new team. The alternate team is known as Direct Current, which is also a new team.

Each team has anywhere from about eight to 13 students, who are mostly in high school, but some teams have seventh- and eighth-graders. The teams were divided into students who specialize on certain aspects, such as mechanics, programming and marketing.

Since the beginning of this school year, the teams have been meeting about twice a week, usually on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday nights.

At the start of each season, all teams in the FTC are given the same challenge — to build a robot using only certain materials to solve puzzles or overcome obstacles.

For the 2012-13 season, the challenge is called “Ring It Up!” where two alliances comprised of two teams each compete in matches consisting of an autonomous period followed by driver-controlled period.

The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent’s alliance by placing plastic rings onto pegs on the center rack that looks like a tic-tac-toe board, but the rules are a little more complex than the tic-tac-toe game most people are familiar with.

Teams can earn points in several different ways, such as placing weighted rings or placing three ring in a row.

Then in the end, one of the team’s robots must be able to lift the other team’s robot off the floor.

This year’s teams from Rolla competed in three regional competitions during the regular season — one in Cape Girardeau, one in Kansas City and one in Arkansas state. Next year, Rolla robotics teams hope to host a regional competition here.

“There are a lot of ways to earn points,” said Phil Allen, mentor for the Patriots team. “It’s really a thinking and strategy game and deciding how to spend our time to get the most points.”

Different designs

The Patriots team’s robot is a square box with omni wheels that can travel in any direction, an arm that is built with shoulder and wrist joints and an end effector, which is like a hand that is able to align the peg with the ring using a tube. Allen said the team’s design is like no others that he has seen.

Cody Santogrossi, a freshman and Patriots team member, said, “We came up with a design to be both maneuverable, fast and efficient.”

Jessie Liu, an eighth-grader on the Maniacal Mechanics, said there was a learning curve to overcome being a first-year team and said his team learned to adapt quickly when things went wrong at competitions.

The Maniacal Mechanics’ first design used a spiral arm like ones found in vending machines, but the team changed its design when team members found the spiral to be ineffective. Now, their design consists of a scissor lift and a bucket that can hold two rings. Team members said the design is simple, uses basic maneuvers and does not require many parts to be programmed.

“We tried to keep it simple as a first-year team,” Liu said.

Direct Current’s robot is named “Ali,” after boxer Muhammad Ali. “Our robot was kind of small while others had these huge, metal ones,” said Bob Block, senior and member of Direct Current, “and one of my team partners said he didn’t know how our robot would do, and I said, ‘Don’t worry. It can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,’ ” a famous catch phrase of the boxer. And the robot did well, placing in the middle of the pack in its first competition.

David Xiao, a freshman and member of Direct Current, said his team’s robot uses a scissor lift with a gripper that can be lifted to a desired height to place a ring on a peg. The team’s robot also uses omni wheels, Burke added. On the final design, an “alien antennae” was added to hold a second ring.

Direct Current’s robot can place two rings on two different pegs and can be controlled by one controller, not two like some other teams. The team’s robot can also reach the top row of pegs, while some of their competitors cannot.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Xiao said of building and designing robots.

Leigh Ann Tumbrink, a RHS robotics coach, called Direct Current “the most organized team.”

Friendly competition

Aysen Malone, a junior and Patriots team member, said because her team participated last year, members have gained a lot of experience and are able to help not only the other two Rolla teams but also teams they are competing against.

While it may seem strange to some to help a competitor, Patriots team members said it actually makes the competition more fair. “Coopertition,” a combination of the words cooperation and competition, was how some team members described it.

Last year at the FTC, the Patriots won the Inspire Award given to the team that truly embodies the challenge of the FTC program and is chosen by the judges as having best represented a role model FTC team.

In fact, this Friday night, the Rolla teams are allowing any teams competing in the FTC Saturday to practice and share ideas and strategies at RHS. One common issue facing the robots is static electricity and Allen said his team has been working a solution that they hope to share with other teams.

Allen said self-confidence is another thing that team members learned from last year. They also are more familiar with the process this time.

Malone encourages teens to join the robotics team. “If you want to do engineering, do robotics,” she said.

Drue Satterfield, a senior and Patriots team member, called being on the robotics team his “best high school experience.”

Savanna Huffman, also a senior, said being on the marketing part of the Patriots team has helped her gain real-world experience in graphics.

Connor LeCroix, a member of the Maniacal Mechanics, said he is looking to be an engineer and attend S&T one day.

“It’s well worth it. It’s not only fun, it’s a learning experience,” Xiao said.