University Hosts Robotics Competition for Local High School Students
The VEX robotics competition brought together more than 30 teams from Connecticut and Massachusetts high schools that competed in individual and team challenges. Teams also had the opportunity to qualify for the New England Region Championship, while building their robotics and teamwork skills.
February 25, 2022
Stephanie Gillespie, Ph.D. and Liberty Page, M.S.
Stephanie Gillespie, Ph.D.
The Beckerman Recreation Center was humming with life on a recent Saturday, as 30 robots whirred, lifted, and maneuvered over four fields with obstacles and challenges. More than 30 teams from across Connecticut and Massachusetts convened for a “last-chance” qualifier for the VEX robotics competition. Student teams who won awards or scored high enough on skill-based tests would be eligible for the New England regional competition.
What is VEX robotics, and what does a competition look like? VEX robotics is an educational robotics organization focused on both informal and formal STEM education opportunities. This competition allowed 150 high school students to bring their robots to the University of New Haven to compete in individual skills-based challenges, as well as team “alliance” challenges in which a 2 vs 2 robot game is played.
Teams score points for moving physical objects into certain positions in the arena, meeting objectives, and avoiding fouls. All of this is maneuvered via a robot built, programmed, and controlled by the teams. The teams make design decisions to prioritize their game strategy and robot design, iterating and making changes to the robot throughout the season.
'Teams can… shine'
Dakota McDonough, the head judge for the University-hosted competition, is also a coach for Masuk High School in Monroe, CT. The Masuk High School program has more than ten high school teams competing in VEX robotics, and has additional middle school teams, with a total of more than 200 students in the program.
"I think this event is extremely important to Southern New England as a whole, since it provides teams one final chance to qualify for regionals," said McDonough. "Teams that weren’t as strong early in the season but who have significantly developed can shine. Eighty percent of the teams at this event haven't qualified for regionals yet, so this event gives teams a final chance."
Beyond the competition and team goals, McDonough also commented on the skills students learned, stating many of the students active on the robotics teams choose to pursue engineering in college. They gain an ability to work in a team environment, and even build camaraderie across different high school programs.
“Our top team has video calls with teams around the world to discuss the challenging programming problems,” said McDonough. “Before COVID, the teams from Monroe, Danbury, New Canaan, and other cities and towns in Connecticut used to get together on weekends to practice and learn from each other.”
'Gain skills beyond robotics'
Of course, this event wouldn’t be possible to host without significant support. It included multiple student volunteers, many of whom came from the University’s Robotics Club.
Steven LeClerc ’24, president of the Robotics Club, did not participate in VEX robotics in high school, but had other robotics experience through FIRST robotics. While there are differences in the organizations and structures, both programs provide high school students an opportunity to dive into STEM.
"By hosting this event and supporting VEX robotics, we are helping all high school students involved gain skills beyond robotics,” said LeClerc, a cybersecurity and networks major. “The interpersonal skills gained through this team collaboration are important. The VEX robotics scholarship offered by Admissions is also helpful, and VEX provides additional scholarship opportunities that can be helpful for the high school students."
'The competition is exciting'
The largest impact of this event is likely felt directly on the student participants. Aiden Pringle, a senior at Masuk High School, commented that, “I joined the program not knowing what I was getting into with robotics. I’ve actually learned so much more than I would have otherwise, plus I also get to hang out with friends.”
“There is more energy at this event than others, with more team spirit since it was a smaller event,” added Tyler Cummings, also a senior at Masuk High School. “We get to talk to more people and get to know more teams.”
Grace Yoder, a senior at Suffield High School, was a part of the G-4S team, and sponsored by their 4-H program youth development chapter. She reflected on her experience at the event and on her role as the driver of the robot.
“The competition is exciting because I can showcase what we’ve been practicing,” she said. “I’ve done some programming, and while I didn’t think I’d like it at first, it’s been fun.”
The event this year was smaller due to COVID-19 safety protocols, but it was exciting to host after being unable to host an event in Spring 2021. Looking ahead, the Robotics Club and TCoE Dean’s office are excited to hopefully return the event to its full size of 60 teams – approximately 300 participants – and to continue supporting STEM opportunities for high school students. We look forward to bringing more students to the University who may not otherwise visit our beautiful campus.
Liberty Page, M.S.
The University has hosted this annual competition all but once since 2016 thanks to the hard work of our student and faculty volunteers from the University’s Robotics Club and our University of New Haven partners, specifically CTEEA.
Alec Andrulat ’17, the late Dr. Bijan Karimi, and I started this initiative because we were passionate about promoting robotics education. I believe that robotics is an outstanding mechanism for teaching the engineering process and concepts to high school students. It is also a tremendous opportunity for these students to learn about engineering and STEM careers.
Five teams qualified for the New England Region Championship based on the awards they received at our competition. We were excited to bring these outstanding students to our campus for this competition.
The VEX Robotics event was the kick-off of Engineer’s Week, also known as “E-Week,” a week-long celebration of engineering and STEM disciplines. Other events hosted by the Tagliatela College of Engineering student organizations and faculty include an Alvine Engineering Professional Effectiveness and Enrichment Program Virtual Panel, laser-etching a mason jar (sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers), and Coffee and Cookies with the deans.
Stephanie Gillespie, Ph.D., is the associate dean of the University’s Tagliatela College of Engineering. Liberty Page ’91 M.S. is a lecturer and coordinator of the University’s Bachelor of Science program in cybersecurity and networks.