Passion takes students to world robotics competition

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Lincoln Trail Elementary sixth-graders Bret Lange, left, Trey Nord and Sean Windell adjust their robots during a VEX Robotics practice at the school in Lamar on Wednesday. 


LAMAR — Robots buzzed around the robotics room at Lincoln Trail Elementary Wednesday afternoon as students practiced for their second visit to the VEX Robotics World Championship.

Lincoln Trail fields three teams — OverDrive, the Lincoln Levelers and the Logical Lincolns — and many of the 18 students in the program participated in Lincoln Trail’s inaugural group three years ago. The first year, the teams made it to the state competition, then, last year, they advanced to the world championship. At the end of April, all three teams will again compete at the world level.

The program’s quick success is indicative of the passion the students have for VEX Robotics.

“It’s a hobby and a passion of ours,” said sixth-grader Peyton Mattingly. “We just love it.”

Although Lincoln Trail began winning competitions almost immediately, the wins weren’t easy to come by. The students dedicated hours of time to building, programming and perfecting their robots. The students give up recess time daily and meet for two hours after school on Wednesdays to make sure their robots are the best they can be.

The students began meeting in September. First, they got basic kits to build their robots for the year. After that, the students started practicing the challenge for the year: moving plastic 6-by-6 cylinders around the tables and stacking them.

Lincoln Trail Elementary fifth-grader Addie Asbury, left, and sixth-grader Lexi Paulin show ideas for a VEX fundraiser dance to fourth-grade teacher Lori Persohn during VEX Robotics practice at the school on Wednesday.

Several orange cylinders sit on tables for the robots to either pick up and carry or push to the scoring area. In the scoring area, the students stack cylinders on top of each other, trying to cram as many into the space as possible with the minute time limit. The first level of orange cylinders is worth one point a piece. Stacked, they’re worth two points.

There are also two yellow cylinders that sit on top of towers connected by a bar. Those cylinders are worth double the points of the orange ones, but they’re also harder to get since the robots have to pick them up off the top of the towers. 

At competition, each team is paired up with another team, and the two teams work together to complete the task. At the end of the task, both teams receive the same number of points, so they sink or swim together. The collaborative model creates an atmosphere of competitive camaraderie among teams from around the world.

“It’s really competitive,” said sixth-grader Alexis Paulin. “[But] everybody’s cheering for everybody to do well.”

The competition is split into three sections: a driving section where students control the robot and drive it around the table; an autonomous section where students program a path for the robot to follow before the competition; and a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — project where students apply robotics to real-world problems.

Lincoln Trail Elementary sixth-graders practice with their robots during a VEX Robotics practice at the school on Wednesday.

Every student learns and participates in each of the three competition areas, but since they each have different strengths, they’ll often specialize in one of the three competition areas. Sixth-grader Trey Nord specializes in coding for his team.

“Two years ago we didn’t even know how to do this,” Nord said as he tweaked code on a laptop to smooth out the robot’s path on the play field. “We’ve learned so much.”

Most of the learning comes through trial and error. Each team starts with the same basic robot kit, but they are free to customize the robots however they see fit. For OverDrive, that meant widening the base on their robot to make it more stable, lengthening the arm and adding a second engine to give it more power.

“It’s more reliable and it’s more efficient,” Peyton said.

The Logical Lincolns modified their robot the most out of the three teams. They added two more claws to their machine, creating a cross between the basic claw robot and a praying mantis model, which has more arms than the basic claw bots.

The teams build impressive robots in the months they’re given, Alexis said their robots pale in comparison to what the Chinese teams at the world championship have. Last year, she recalled, the challenge was to pick up colored rings and sort them by color. While Lincoln Trail’s robots had to pick up and sort each ring, the Chinese teams built color recognition software into their robots, allowing them to sweep up and sort a bunch of rings at once, then deposit them on the pegs in groups.

Seeing what other teams come up with is just one of the highlights of attending the world championship. The bigger highlight is meeting and competing with kids from around the world, using Google translate to bridge language barriers. Last year, the students met peers from China and Great Britain. Fifth-grader Addie Asbury is looking forward to that part of worlds.

“No one gets to do that every day,” she said.

This year is Addie’s first year in VEX Robotics.

This year’s world championship will take place in Louisville, Kentucky, over the last weekend in April. Other area teams that will compete are the CCI Superbuilders from Cedar Crest Intermediate School in Bretzville and the Marksmen and William Tell Marksmen from William Tell Elementary in Tell City.

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