In an arena in the Westview Middle School gym, 12-year-old Michael Ballard deftly controlled a robot to pick up purple rings and balance a seesaw. Michael battled not only the clock but an opposing team in the obstacle course.
The setup was part of the first districtwide VEX robotics competition of the school year Saturday in Longmont. The kickoff involved robotics teams from middle schools across the St. Vrain Valley School District.
When asked about his favorite part Saturday, Michael said: “Definitely competing and fixing the robot when it gets damaged.”
Over the past five years, the St. Vrain district has seen a 1,116% increase in the number of students participating in VEX robotics, according to a district news release. Westview Principal Mark Spencer said he believes that’s because VEX offers so much to the students who join the robotics challenge, including skills in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Robotics isn’t just like building a cool toy and driving it around,” Spencer said. “Everything that robot does has to be controlled by writing code. Students learn to code at a high level. They have not just the camaraderie of others at their school … they’re working side by side with kids at other schools.”
Preparing for another round of the competition Saturday, Vania Thomas, 13, and Kierstin Glaze, 11, of the Soaring Heights team Killer Bees, shared a bit about their robot, Jessica.
Though she is often “sassy,” the team said Jessica is a multidirectional robot and can swoop to pick up purple rings in the arena with a claw or an intake roller. Teams on Saturday sought to gain the most number of points by completing different tasks in two minutes, including snatching up the purple rings.
“I’ve always wanted to do robotics,” Vania said. “I’m a very passionate person about this. This team is one of my most favorite.”
She said robotics had taught her how to build something with her own two hands.
Even though the ups and downs of the team’s array of wins and losses that day, Kierstin said she was glad to be part of the competition.
“It was confusing, fun, and a new experience,” she said.
Daniel Hernandez, a robotics and computer science teacher at Westview Middle School, helped to run the competition Saturday. He said students take away life skills from being involved, including communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.
“Talking to other teachers in the building, they see growth in our students with robotics, because they’re learning to work through really tough situations,” Hernandez said. “A day like today, at any moment something could go wrong with your robot and they have to fix it on the spot.”
Participation is also something students can put on a resume. Hernandez said he knows of district students who’ve competed in VEX and gone on to intern with technology and software companies.
The state competition is slated for March. From the state competition, students have the chance to compete in a world championship. Close to 140 teams across grade levels in the district are competing this year.
“For many of these students, it’s going to lead to a future career,” Hernandez said.