West Feliciana teachers Heather Howle and Justin Davenport are inspiring students with the help of some pretty high-tech teaching aids: robots.

And evidently the students are quick learners. West Feliciana High School’s Robotics Club recently placed second at a statewide competition in Bossier City.

Howle introduced robotics last year for the first time as part of her West Feliciana Middle School STEM elective and her students excelled. It was so popular, in fact, it was offered again this year.

Thanks to a generous $13,000 grant last year from Entergy, Howle was able to buy the first 35 robotics kits from LEGO and the School Board chipped in laptops and software. Her eighth-grade students worked hard learning how to build them and program them to do various tasks. Entergy awarded another $7,000 grant this year to expand the robotics training.

Last spring, they held their first competition in the middle school gym and demonstrated different skills and even had a “Sumo-bot” competition, pitting robots in sumo wrestling matches. Howle plans to hold another Sumo-bot event in the spring.

“Last year was the guinea pig year,” said Howle.

She said robotics competitions are popular in north Louisiana. There’s a First LEGO League in the southern part of the state, but it’s expensive to join and compete. Howle found a less-expensive event in Bossier City put on by the Cyber Innovation Center in Shreveport. The Regional Autonomous Robotics Competition is a year-long series of three competitive challenges and attracts schools from across the state.

The first RARC was held Nov. 14 and West Feliciana brought four teams of three students, plus two alternates. Other RARCs will take place on Feb. 20 and April 30 at the Bossier City Civic Center.

“It was a great learning experience and we understand more about it,” said Howle. “Each time the competition changes and it gets a little more difficult. Every year, there’s a theme and all three competitions take place on a mat they provide and the tasks are a part of the theme.”

The mat has a grid and the challenges utilize the grid. For example, one involves a delivery and two more involve retrievals using the robots.

“These competitions are a lot of fun and it’s a good starting point for us,” Howle said. “They learn quite a lot of STEM-related material and the whole point is to not make it a scary thing.”

Davenport helped introduce three robotics-based classes at the high school this year along with helping form the Robotics Club as an extracurricular activity. Davenport teaches cyber physics to 12th-graders while Killian Williams teaches ninth-grade cyber literacy and Dennis Dyer teaches 10th-grade cyber science. The Robotics Club attracts its members from the three classes.

“They didn’t do it for a grade or anything, they just wanted to compete,” said Davenport, who became adviser to the club when Principal Jim Carroll recruited him. Prior to that, he didn’t have much experience with robotics.

He said the club has 10 to 15 members from freshmen to seniors. Three students went to the RARC event in Bossier City — two freshmen and a sophomore.

“This was the startup year, we planned to start off small in scope and we weren’t expecting to get second place,” Davenport said. “The kids were really excited.”

There were 24 high school teams from around the state and the event attracted a total of 220 teams including elementary and middle school.

The competitions seem simple, but they require a number of skills and understanding like computer programming and complex problem-solving. For the first competition, the robots were required to navigate a map on a mat, following a line and pick up binder clips.

“They whole point is it has to be autonomous,” Davenport said. “We’re ready for the next set of rules and to start getting ready for the next competition. Our goal is to be grand champion.”

Howle and Davenport want to see the West Feliciana robotics teams continue to compete in various events, but it costs money. They would like to attract sponsors to help underwrite the expenses.