In a nearly empty elementary school campus on a Monday afternoon in March, the cries of joy, defeat and loss could be heard escaping a small Scottsdale classroom transformed into a makeshift robot garage.
It was the students’ first day back to school from spring break, and about six weeks away from a robotics world competition in Kentucky, for the second consecutive year.
Twenty Hohokam Traditional School, 8451 E. Oak Street, students between third and fifth grade meet after school every day to research, plan, build, and practice for competitions with their robots.
The school’s robotics club is sending a total of 10 students — two third graders, four fourth graders and four fifth graders — to the Vex World Championships April 23-25, in Louisville, Ky.
This year, all four teams qualified for the state competition, and team Horus placed second in the state automatically qualifying for the world competition.
Their arena of competition is a 4-foot by 8-foot rectangle. This classroom has two of these rectangles with students huddled around all sides with four different robots.
The Hohokam students specialize in different types of challenges. In one, an alliance of two driver-controlled robots work together in each match. In another, autonomous robots with limited human interaction are judged on their programming skills.
The object of the game is to attain the highest score by scoring “hexballs” in their colored scoring zone and goals, and by parking and balancing robots on a bridge in the allotted 60-seconds.
In robotics club students utilize their STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — skills. The study of competitive robotics, according to the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation website, not only encompasses all four pillars of STEM education, but it also encourages life skills such as project-based organization, teamwork and communication.
The activity has grown to have the VEX robotics program in 40 countries around the world. The top 1,400 robotics teams will compete in the April world championship.
“The Robotics Education & Competition Foundation has seen tremendous growth in competitive robotics due in part to the hands-on approach and curriculum-based format of the VEX Robotics programs we offer,” said Vicki Grisanti, Robotics Education & Competition Foundation senior director of communication, in an emailed response to questions.
“Students build confidence in their STEM skills and gain life skills, such as teamwork and collaboration, that prepare them to succeed long after the competition has ended.”
Brains and bots
While some students are serious and focused when the controller is in their hand, others are cheering, dancing and strategizing with their partners.
The robotics program has been implemented at Hohokam Traditional School for several years, and they are looking to begin offering a class related to robotics.
The skill of this group is what has gotten them so far, Robotics Coach Mike Peabody said in a March 13 interview at Hohokam Traditional.
“This is all about their skills. We can’t drive, we can’t score points, we can try to get them working together to figure out what to do and how to interact with other kids. But game time comes and it’s all about them,” he said.
Mr. Peabody said they are hoping to add five to 10 more students to the program next year.
“They have to learn how to cope with the pressure, they have to learn how to go with the builds, they have to learn how to fix, how to change the programming. So it’s all them.”
The students first research and present a project on a real robot and its purpose in life. This year, Hohokam chose a robot that rids of germs that can cause diseases such as MRSA.
The program’s focus on science was what drew third-grader Lillian Manning, she said.
“Science! First we research stuff about what we’re researching,” she explained. “And then we’ll print stuff and put it on a board.”
The students science project can earn them points in the competition as well.
“The Xenex robot is a germ-zapping robot,” said fifth grader Jason Gonzales. “When really bad germs such as C Diff (Clostridium difficile) and MRSA get into people it can sometimes really hurt them.”
After researching, the students begin to assemble their bots. The Hohokam group has four unique robots.
“(It took) a couple weeks and then we did some changes,” said student Grace Rochanakit. “I had an idea — well one of the teams said, we could take the tail off — But I wanted to make it wider so it could knock more balls off.”
The robots, each about a foot in diameter, have wheels, claws, tails and other specialty features that helps it master the playing field.
Shortly after screaming in frustration at her robot, Grace says that she joined the club because she thought it was exciting. Whereas Jason says the topic of the club peaked his interest.
“At the beginning of the year I thought it would be fun, and then when I got more into it I realized it’s about robots and stuff, I really like mechanical stuff,” he said.
The cost of the trip to Kentucky is about $900 per student. Community members can give the Hohokam robotics club a tax-deductible donation by visiting https://touchbase.susd.org/taxcredits to help them attend the world competition.