WORDS: Sheri Roca
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
At Tara Elementary School in Bradenton, 28 students are learning to build and code their own robots! Tara is one of only about 10 schools in Manatee County to offer the very popular Robotics Club. If they qualify, these schools will compete against each other at the regional tournament for the honor of battling it out at the state competition this year. Tournaments are held year-round at the regional, state, and national levels and conclude at the VEX Robotics World Championship each April.
This is year three for Tara’s Robotics Club, led by STEM teacher Katie Van Beveren. STEM: or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is one of the “specials” taught at Tara and many of our Manatee County Elementary schools. In fact, Manatee County is leading the state of Florida in offering innovative projects related to STEM education.
The Club is open to all 4th and 5th-grade students, but only 28 student slots were available. Because there were 76 interested aspiring Robotics Engineers, an application process was required. A questionnaire and an essay by each student, as to the reason they would like to be part of the Robotics Club and why they think they would make a good team member, was the basis of the application. The questions also related to what types of previous experiences they may have had with similar projects, like building with Legos, coding, and video games.
The Club meets two nights a week, with some of the teams meeting on Wednesdays as an after-school club and some on Thursdays as part of the Knights Academy after-care program. I had the privilege of meeting the four dynamic teams that meet on Wednesdays.
When I asked a few of the teammates why they wanted to be a part of the Robotics club, I repeatedly heard one, almost unanimous answer: “I like to build things!” One teammate recalled earlier robots with awe, stating, “Last year’s robots were so cool, I just wanted to build one too!”. “I just love technology!” was another enthusiastic answer. “I love Legos and coding, and I really wanted to be involved in an after-school club,” responded another. And an equally excited club member recalled how much he loved building Legos with his brother. It seemed that everyone there was in their element and thrilled to be a part of the Robotics club.
So, how does a 4th or 5th grader build a robot? It begins with deciding and agreeing upon which style of robot would be best for the job at hand. Each team first determines which of the robotic kits available will be able to score the most points in this year’s competitive challenge. They will also need to consider the robot’s dimensions and its ability to maneuver under, over, or around the hurdles on the playing field.
And this year’s VEX IQ Challenge, dubbed “Pitching in” by VEX Robotics, is no easy contest! Students will be tasked to design and build a robot that can score the most points by throwing balls into a goal, clearing the corral of balls, and hanging from a bar at the end of the game. The 28 club members will also need to construct an exact model of the competition playing field for practice and problem-solving opportunities. And they are going to accomplish it all in approximately one hour a week (and leave enough time for clean-up).
The students will start by building their team’s chosen robot to specification. Then later, if they choose, they will have the option of modifying or customizing the robot to better achieve the challenges of the game, like adding hooks that it could hang from, or simply changing its esthetics, like adding lights or even speakers for sound.
How complicated could it be? According to the VEX Robotics Website, www.vexrobotics.com, each kit contains more than 1,700 parts, including a Robot Brain! The Brain connects the entire robot together and includes a color screen for “quick and easy control.” There is also a controller to enable wireless driving and code download, an Optical Sensor to let the robot see light, color, and gestures.
A distance sensor uses safe lasers to accurately detect distances without interference. The Touch LED provides human touch input to the robot and color output to human eyes. The bumper allows the robot to feel when it hits a wall or another robot. And, most importantly, the smart motors that make it all come to life with power and precision.
This brings us to the competition. And the competition is fierce. In the Grade 4-8 level, there are more than 8,500 teams from 45 countries playing in over 900 tournaments around the world. The VEX Robotics competitions and programs are managed by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation. In April 2018, VEX Robotics Competition was named the largest robotics competition in the world by Guinness World Records.
The VEX IQ Challenge, “Pitching In,” is played on a 6′ x 8′ rectangular field configured specifically for the challenge at hand. The first challenge is the Teamwork Challenge. Two teams will work together in a 60-second-long teamwork match, in which both teams’ robots will work collaboratively to score points. Teams also compete in the Robot Skills Challenge, where one robot takes the field to score as many points as possible. These matches consist of both Driving Skills Matches, which will be entirely driver-controlled and Programming Skills Matches, which will be autonomous with limited human interaction. This is where coding skills come in.
Just imagine all the skills required of these nine and 10-year-olds to work together to build a competitive robot. First, all four aspects of STEM education are utilized. And, although some may be born with a certain ingenuity or ability to think like an Engineer, building a competitive robot is not simply about the engineering aspects. Important life skills like teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking skills are key on a robotics team. Not to mention an abundance of creativity and communication. A club like this is an amazing opportunity to grow, learn and has many ways for students to get involved.
As I explore Ms. Van Beveren’s classroom, I notice that the walls are lined with messages for the students, reminding young, would-be Scientists and Engineers that “Engineers work together, all ideas are valued” and “Listen to all directions before touching any materials.” Whether rules to be followed or words to the wise, it is good advice for all.