SVVSD teams heading to VEX robotics world championships

Originally published in the Daily Camera >>


Most of the elementary and middle school teams competing in a recent St. Vrain Valley robotics scrimmage are on at least a second version of the robots they built from scratch.
 
“We changed it to be easier to drive,” said Central Elementary fifth-grader Logan O’Brien as he checked over his team’s robot before taking it to the battlefield. “I doubled the gears and made thinner arms.”
 
The 11 teams at the scrimmage, from Central, Red Hawk Elementary, Fall River Elementary, Alpine Elementary, Soaring Heights K-8, Flagstaff Academy and Westview Middle, were getting in a last practice session before heading to the world championship.
 
Nine of the teams are competing in the VEX Robotics IQ world championships in Kentucky this weekend. The other two teams, both from Westview, are competing at Vex’s higher level competition, also in Kentucky, this week.
 
Westview seventh-grader Dacen Wach, who is on the school’s Martians team, got his start with the robotics team at Central Elementary. Creating a robot from scratch, he said, “seems really hard in the beginning, but we work through problems and think it through.”
 
“It’s really fun, and we learn a lot,” he said.
 
Red Hawk Elementary Principal Tim Garcia is going along with the school’s three teams that qualified for worlds to serve as one of the competition’s announcers.
 
He got the gig after impressing the judges with his additions of fog machines, strobe lights and music at a state tournament that his school hosted.
 
“We want them to understand what they’re doing is special,” he said. “These students deserve to be treated like any other students competing at a high level.”
 
He added that he likes that the students and teachers are learning together as they build the robots.
 
“They’re constantly reflecting and revising and improving,” he said. “That’s a skill that will serve them the rest of their lives.”
 
The number of robotics teams in St. Vrain increases each year.
 
In the 2013-2014 school year, the district had 21 teams across five schools. This year, the district has 155 teams throughout 35 schools, involving about 700 students.
 
District schools also hosted 19 tournaments over the school year, including two state tournaments.
 
“Robotics is now a core part of our STEM program,” said Axel Reitzig, St. Vrain Valley Innovation Center robotics and computer science coordinator. “We want any student in the district who wants to participate in robotics to have this opportunity.”
 
Robotics aligns well with the district’s STEM initiatives, he said, by teaching a range of topics including computer science, design, math and writing.
 
“Kids can also practice their soft skills, communication, collaboration, creativity, tenacity,” he said. “It’s a perfect package deal as a STEM platform.”
 
He noted the program requires support from parents, teachers, sponsors and many district staff members. Even the district’s warehouse gets involved, moving equipment so schools can host tournaments.
 
“Everyone is helping to support this to make all this happen,” he said.
 
The next challenge, he said, is what to offer students moving up to high school to keep them challenged. At the high school level, St. Vrain has three districtwide high school robotics teams that participate in the competitive FIRST Robotics program.
 
Danny Hernandez, who teaches STEM classes at Westview Middle School and coaches the robotics teams, said his program started with a team in a family’s basement.
 
“The growth is impressive,” he said.
 
Students give up lunch hours, weekends and holiday breaks during the yearlong program to get their robots competition ready, he said.
 
“We allow them to build and create in a fun environment,” he said. “They want to do this.”
 
The challenge for the two Westview teams, dubbed “turning point,” requires the robot to flip caps, to shoot rubber balls at flags to turn it to their team’s color and to climb up a platform on a 12-foot-by-12-foot field.
 
The competition starts with two school teams randomly assigned to work together against two other randomly assigned teams. The object is to score as many points as possible in one minute, 45 seconds.
 
Westview’s “Semicolon” team, comprised of three eighth graders in their third year of competing together, is at worlds for the first time.
 
Eighth-grader Kate Fallon said she joined the team in sixth grade because it sounded cool. She stuck with it because “it’s the thing I really love doing.”
 
The team started by coming up with a basic design, then built prototypes to figure out which design would work best to complete the tasks. Finally, they built the robot, but continued to make changes as they competed.
 
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Kate said. “We have a different robot than we started with.”
 
Teammate Tyler Plaster said one of the challenges is they need to practice driving the robot to improve, but the more it’s driven, the more it’s going to fall apart.
 
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is you need quick, easy replacements so you can fix things during competitions,” he said.