Two teams headed to world competition

VEX Robotics has only just been introduced in the Indian River School District, yet two IRSD teams beat schools from across the state to advance to this year’s VEX Worlds competition.

Much of the program’s success in southern Delaware is due to Georgetown Elementary School assistant principal Travis Bower, who taught Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM at Selbyville Middle School before taking the job in Georgetown. GES and SMS are the only Indian River schools offering VEX Robotics programs.

“It’s a very young program in Delaware,” Bower said. “It’s teaching them a lot of STEM skills they’re going to use down the road if they choose a STEM career, but it also teaches them how to problem-solve. Rather than getting upset and worrying about it, they think about how they can get in there and fix it.”

The VEX Robotics company creates hands-on STEM learning tools like robots for educators, while the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation fosters STEM and interpersonal skills in students through robotics competitions, camps, workshops and conferences. The RECF hosts competitions in communities around the world, which culminate each year at the VEX Worlds, April 19-25 this year at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

Robotics teams qualify by winning regional competitions. In the United States, those are organized by state. The Delaware teams at the elementary, middle and high school levels competed in March at Wesley College. Countries like China, Singapore, New Zealand, Bahrain, the United Kingdom, Russia, Ethiopia, Paraguay and Egypt are among those sending winners from their own regional divisions.

Selbyville Middle STEM teacher and robotics coach Jon Casto said the competition is a great experience for students.

“Even just traveling to another state, some of them have never been on a plane,” he said. “They’re forming friendships with kids from around the world.”

All the kids are doing it

At Georgetown Elementary, students in grades 3-5 can participate in after-school robotics. Bowers and teachers Nicole Morey and Dickey Messick coach the team. The program, in its second year, is extremely popular among students. This year, the coaches put the kids who started last year on the competition team, taking on all 60 of the sign-ups for robotics basics.

Fifth-grader Wyatt Warner and fourth-graders Addison Layne and Kayla Betts will represent Delaware elementary schools in Louisville. They’ve been meeting once a week since the school year began, and more often as competition time gets closer.

The elementary school competition, VEX IQ Crossover, takes place on a ping-pong table-size board with short walls on all sides. The board does not change, but its design does. Last year, robots placed round balls into nets. This year, the students are working with “hex balls,” shaped like jacks, and must place them in square slots. Just moving the hex balls from one side of the board to the other scores the team points, but more points are scored for getting them in the slots or for getting the robot onto the bridge that connects the two sides of the board.

Dower said the students designed the robot on their own.

“They engineered it,” he said. “They programmed it.”

The teams work with robot kits which contain everything needed to build a battery-powered robot. The design is up to them.

The design is critical because the robot has to be able to pick up the hex ball, remain upright and move across the board, plus other moves. To do all that, it has to be programmed to work with a handheld controller that the students operate. At Georgetown Elementary, learning to program is part of the curriculum. The students connect the robot to a computer and type in the code.

In addition to designing and building the robot, students complete a journal, logging everything they’ve done in preparation. On the elementary school level, students must also create a project in which they research ways in which robotics could benefit their communities. The GES team chose tractorless farming.

Addison said tractorless farming would allow farmers to spend more time with their families. “But they’re still in testing,” she said.

At the state competition, Addison, Kayla and Wyatt bested 11 other schools for the excellence award and the right to compete at VEX Worlds. “Compete,” however, is misleading in this case; regional winning teams are randomly paired and have to work together to earn points. Bower said language barriers can sometimes be a challenge, but that’s just another tool for teaching cooperation.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “Right now, I’m just giving them my phone to use Google Translate.”

Bigger kids, bigger challenges

A bit farther south, at Selbyville Middle School, sixth-graders Kaitlin Johnson and Evan Carpenter and seventh-grader Kendall Coleman are working on a bigger scale.

The “board” at the middle school level is a 12-by-12-foot space on the floor, with fence-like barriers on two sides. The Vex IQ Challenge requires they use their robot to move “stars,” or bigger jack-shaped objects, past the fence, by either lifting them over or pushing them under it. In addition to the stars, each team gets a cube, pre-placed on the robot, which, when moved to the other side of the fence, also scores them points. Middle school teams must keep a journal of their activities, but aren’t required to complete a research project like the elementary school teams.

In addition to working with a bigger board, middle school students must design a bigger robot. The SMS team has designed and redesigned their robot four times this year, and is particularly proud of their robot’s ability to lift the cube over the fence.

Kendall said their first design had a claw, but it didn’t lift high enough,” said Kendall.

“Then we built a scissor lift, but the wheels had too much friction, so it would overheat,” Kendall said. “We tried a longer claw design, but that didn’t work.”

The wheels of progress turn slowly. While third-graders at Georgetown Elementary knew how to code, the SMS team students did not, as coding wasn’t a part of the curriculum when they were that age. Fortunately, Kendall learned to code from previous team members, and is in turn teaching her current team members.

While the elementary and high school level robotics programs in Delaware seem to be growing exponentially, there are fewer teams on the middle school level. SMS had just one competitor at the state competition this year: Talley Middle School of Wilmington. Nevertheless, SMS took home the excellence award and will head to Kentucky, accompanied by coaches and SMS teachers Casto and Tommie Morrison.

Almost 1,000 teams from elementary, middle and high schools, or their country’s equivalent, will compete at VEX Worlds this year. On the high school level, Cape Henlopen, Appoquinimink and Cab Calloway High Schools will be representing Delaware. Each team’s trip is funded through donations and grants.

“We’re still fundraising,” Bower said. “We got a grant from RECF, which was cool, and we got a lot of local businesses to donate, even DuPont.”

The SMS students are doing their own fundraising, holding bake sales and other events. If you’re interested in donating toward their trip, contact the school.