Imagine a smart, miniature backhoe that runs via remote on a surface inaccessible to humans, like other planets.

Programmed to be as automated as possible, the working mining robot will travel with a team of five Montana Tech students to the 2017 NASA Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida, on May 20.

The team was one of 123 projects competing in the sixth annual Techxpo Design Showcase competition on campus Thursday.

Tech mechanical engineering majors Nicholas Lace, Kyle Smith, Raymond LaTray, Fahad Alkhaldi and Dominic Bizak have teamed up to design and build a modified 29-inch by 5-foot machine on a track system.

“There’s a tube attached that drives a motor that runs the traction,” said Lace.

The team has refined and tweaked the parameters of the same high-tech backhoe Tech used in competition last year. The more automated it is, the higher the team will score with NASA while connected to the NASA bandwidth network.

The least amount of external communication the task requires, the better, said Lace.

“We’re also working with the electrical engineering and computer science departments,” said Smith.

“Everything has been modified,” said Bizak. “We built a new frame that’s a lot lighter than last year’s.” The rollers are now 3D-printed, too.

Tech finished 20th out of 45 teams at the 2016 NASA Robotic Mining Competition.

Joining the team for the week-long NASA competition are a few professors, one of whom will have to load the baby backhoe in the back of a pickup truck and drive it to Florida. Tech’s Robotic Club foots most of the bill for the team’s trip, said Lace. Electrical engineering professor Bryce Hill mentors the team.

Such interdisciplinary projects were common at Techxpo, said roving judge Bev Hartline, vice chancellor for research and dean of graduate studies.

“There are some pretty spectacular projects,” said Hartline. “There are a lot of students who came up with pretty innovative solutions.”

Every academic program — 26 in all — competed in the HPER Complex. Among the judges was a posse of 60 West Elementary sixth-graders, who roamed, pen in hand, judging certain projects to determine the Teen Choice Award.

“I’m learning about engineering and projects that help out the environment,” said red-headed Morgann McGaugh, 11, a student in teacher Danielle Anderson’s classroom.

The school kids had to apply critical thinking skills to score their college counterparts on creative ability, scientific thought, engineering goals, thoroughness, skill and clarity of presentation.

Show Robbie 2, a table-top robot, captured a horde of sixth-graders like no other project.

“They loved it,” said Tech senior Jesse Lieberg. “There was a giant group here at one point. When Robbie stood up, it scared two little girls.”

Lieberg and teammate Logan Warner, both senior software engineers, wrote code and used an application interface to upgrade Robbie’s walking and talking capabilities. One complex task that tickled the grade- schoolers: waving at passers-by.

Biology graduate student Anna Nugent displayed a poster outlining a detailed restoration ecology project in a post-mining landscape. For her, the sixth-graders merely had to ask questions.

“They are a little shy at first, but I just go into my spiel,” said Nugent, an adjunct instructor at Tech who teaches biology to non-majors. Her interest lies in using restoration ecology locally and eventually transforming her studies into a doctorate through the University of Montana.

Plus, no one can say science isn’t fun.

Earlier in the day, the sixth-graders broke into teams to see who could make a plastic Army doll fly the farthest, using only a plastic cup and spoon, a Popsicle stick and rubber bands, said West science teacher Chris Bugni.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase all the work students have done,” said Tech biology professor Stella Capoccia.

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Education Reporter who also covers features at The Montana Standard, I am a Cascade-Ulm-Great Falls native. Originally a sports writer, I wrote for the Missoulian and the Great Falls Tribune. I freelanced for The Seattle Times and other NW publications.

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