Popular Robotics Competition Fosters Creative Thinking, Problem-Solving Skills
VEX Robotics competitions are held across the the world to encourage students to participate in STEM challenges that enable them to develop abilities needed to succeed as an engineer.
December 14, 2018
By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer
The robot moved its arm, picked up an orange cone, moved around an obstacle and gingerly picked up another cone. The robotics team from Masuk High School constructed and programmed their robot to move and it did so, seamlessly, through each round of the third annual VEX Robotics Competition at the Tagliatela College of Engineering, taking the top prize.
"It was amazing to watch the complexity of what that robot was doing," said Liberty Page, Tagliatela College of Engineering practitioner in residence in computer science. "Having the engineering perspective that comes from having built robots, I was aware of everything that could possibly go wrong because of all of the complex movements and nothing did."
VEX Robotics and VEX IQ competitions are held around the country and locales around the world each February. VEX Robotics partners with the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, a non-profit to involve students of all ages in STEM challenges.
To prepare for the competition, teams of students use VEX kits and build robots using an array of everyday materials. At the competition, the teams control their robots competing in challenges and games, tossing nerf like balls or picking up cones, in a series of rounds like an NCAA tournament.
The Tagliatela College of Engineering's involvement began four years ago. Page, who was a mentor to a regional high school robotics team, Apple Pi, started talking robotics with Alec Andrulat `17, an engineering student – now an alum – who played on a competing team. They started a new Tagliatela College of Engineering robotics team and planned a VEX Robotics Competition to encourage students across the region to get into robotics. That first year, 42 high school teams took part.
Last year, 49 high school teams faced off against one another in the Beckerman Rec Center and 31 VEX IQ (Middle school and elementary school) teams competed in the German-American Alliance Club.
"We’ve seen young people redesign and manufacture and build components and new drive systems," Page said. "They’re learning cutting edge techniques. They’re coming to understand how things work and how to make things work."
Participating high school students who have strong GPA’s and are actively engaged in robotics or other STEM programs can also apply for University scholarships. Three students were awarded $20,000 in scholarships, $5,000 a year for four years and all three enrolled.
"They’re learning cutting edge techniques. They’re coming to understand how things work and how to make things work."Liberty Page
Last year 300 people – families and friends of the high school teams and many from the University community – watched the teams compete. "It’s a really exciting day for everyone," Page said.
The event involves dozens of volunteers from across the University, from University Undergraduate Admissions and Facilities and Tagliatela College of Engineering student volunteers from the Robotics Club and the University chapters of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the coed Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity. "The student volunteers learn so much about putting on a large event, about recruiting other volunteers and speaking before a large group," Page said.
The competition fosters creative thinking, problem solving and team work, skills in great demand in engineering and other STEM fields, said Andrulat `17, an Associate Systems Engineer for the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter program at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company.
It teaches resilience too, Andrulat said. He recalled a high school team that had to do some quick thinking and collaborating when they arrived with a robot that was taller than the height requirements. "Instead of giving up, the whole team worked hard to have a functional robot while meeting the size limit," he said. "Most new teams would just give up and go home, but the students on the team were passionate and wanted to solve the problem. One core value every engineer should have is working through a problem no matter how hard the problem is."