United Way of Greater Atlanta partners with tech conference, awarded check for $26K

By Bradley Roberts

Two teenage students from the Johnson STEM Activity Center took home first-place honors in a robot building battle on May 22 at the Citrix Synergy 2019 Conference at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The Citrix Synergy conference took place May 21-23. Citrix is a digital workspace platform that helps employees improve productivity by delivering secure access to applications and data from a single point. The Citrix Synergy Conference let employees from around the world come and view new technologies and share successes with each other.

Attendees had the chance to view a number of different booths inside Building C of the Georgia World Congress Center. But, while many of those in attendance learned about ways to collaborate with one another, there was another booth where teams had paired off to work together and take each other down.

In a friendly competition, of course.

There were 34 students among two different systems who had come to compete in the annual Citrix Synergy Battle Bots Competition. Twenty of the students came from the Johnson STEM Activity Center, while the other 14 came from Lithia Springs High School.

The two schools were invited to the conference at the “Simply Serve” booth by United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Volunteerism team, and HeatSync Labs, with a simple objective: Build a robot and design it to defeat the other bots in a Sumo-wrestling style competition. The bots were divided into separate brackets and randomly paired up against each other in a single-elimination battle in the octagon.

The teams were all given the same basic starting components — wiring, chassis, wheels and mechanics — and the bots had to be paired to laptops at each of the tables and controlled by the students.

“They don’t specifically know about these robots, but they all have a knowledge of building a chassis, a drive frame, motor — they have that cursory knowledge,” says Director of Johnson STEM Activity Center Brian Prokes. “These students aren’t intimidated by the technology, and they are getting a chance to experience success. That’s one of our core principles at Johnson. If you experience success at a young age, then you don’t have that fear of it.”

Prokes’ teams definitely don’t have a fear of the technology. The center was established in March 2017 by Lonnie Johnson, an engineer and entrepreneur who most notably created the Super Soaker water gun. Johnson’s center provides funding for activities related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics to underserved students of Georgia with a focus in Atlanta.

Prokes has two teams who took home FIRST Robotics competition honors this year. The teams come from Fernbank LINKS Science Center, Booker T. Washington High School and Decatur Robotics.

Payton Millinor is the STEM coordinator at Lithia Springs. Students on her Robotics Team are working through a computer science, engineering or biomedical science pathway at the school.

“All but one of them is from our Robotics team,” Millinor said. “We’ve won a couple of awards last year in engineering, design and this year we got an award for creativity.”

United Way reached out to the school and Johnson’s center because of its relationship with Citrix. Throughout the conference, as people posted to different social media channels, they could use the hashtag #CitrixSynergy, and this would donate $1 to United Way with those funds matched by Citrix. On Thursday, May 23, representatives from Citrix presented United Way CEO and President Milton J. Little, Jr. with a check for $26,600.

But, back to the competition.

One team stood out above the rest. While other teams struggled to keep the robots connected, moving and on the table, brothers Willie and Xavier Doyle mowed down the competition. Their robot was named “Phoenix,” and it was designed to resemble the shape of a deer head — the body was wrapped with popsicle sticks glued together to guard its mechanical components and to a point at its end in order to drive the other bots off the table. They attached some pipe cleaners on the back, resembling antlers.

The Doyle duo represented Johnson STEM Activity Center.

“The robotics world is a pretty trophy-heavy activity, so to say, ‘You guys get to win for our facility,’ and get your own trophy in a trophy case, that’s exciting for us,” Prokes said. “These are the types of things that get them excited about robotics. The fact that they are on a two-person team is forcing every one of them to get their hands dirty on every single level. For me, as someone who wants to see them grow, this is an opportunity for them to get their hands on skills they may not otherwise be directly involved with.”