Robotics teams shine at state championship
This year’s state VEX robotics competition may not have looked quite the same as in the past, but the results landed Jackson County’s teams in the top 10.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the contest was completely remote. Two teams from both Ravenswood High and Ripley High, along with one team from Ripley Middle, competed with students from all over West Virginia. One team from Ripley High and the only entry from the middle school qualified to compete in the 2021 Remote VEX Robotics World Championships.
In technical terms, robotics is an interdisciplinary field, integrating computer science and engineering. It involves design, construction and operation of the robots.
This explanation does not capture all that this brings to the students and teachers involved.
Melissa Lough, who has been involved with robotics since its adoption at Ripley High four years ago, said the joy is watching the students work together.
“The teamwork, leadership and communication skills these students learn is invaluable,” Lough said. “Due to the unique challenges of this school year, they had to go above and beyond. In only three months, these students had robots ready to go.”
VEX robotics is a program designed for elementary through university students.
Lough said what started out as an after-school activity grew into a class four years ago. Each year, the team has qualified for the world championship. Unfortunately, last year’s competition was cancelled.
The qualification method for the Ripley High group was a little different this year.
“One of our teams placed second overall which did not qualify them for worlds,” said Lough. “They were then given a chance to compete in the encore online challenge. They prepared a video, which Andrew Sarver edited, highlighting the team. They won this challenge and now they are competing in the world championship. Our other team placed in the top 10 which makes both me and them so proud.”
While not making it to world competition this year, Ravenswood High’s teams were both excited to make the top 10.
Robotics teacher Toni Burks said the class has only been taught at the high school for two years.
“For such a young program to do so well so soon is pretty amazing,” Burks said. “It just shows the dedication these kids have. With multiple quarantines and earlier remote learning, they only had February and March to build their robots.”
Burks said her role is simply a facilitator.
“I procure the parts, do the scheduling and monitor the after-school lab,” she said. “If they are going to succeed, the students themselves have to do the research, learn how to build and program the machine.”
Every member of the team is valuable, but Burks points out one particular role.
“Drivers are vital,” she said. “If this were an engineering company, they would be the quality assurance division. They take the product and critique which then leads the engineers and programmers to repeat the improvement cycle until they are happy with the robot they are meant to drive.”
For the youngest team representing Jackson County, the Ripley Middle School Robot Wranglers, the trip to the world championship came as the result of their overall performance.
Brenda Chancey Brown, who coaches this team, said her students placed second in the skills competition which is the programming and driving portion.
They then went on to be given the Excellence Award.
“This is the top award given,” Brown said. “It encompasses all of the other awards. The team has to achieve high scores in all the areas to win this one.”
This achievement is due to many hours of dedication and hard work, often overcoming obstacles.
Brown said the teammates designed and discovered innovations as a group, experienced failure, persevered and emerged more confident than when they started.
“We work after school Tuesday-Thursday,” she said. “But it doesn’t stop there. These kids give up Saturday mornings to work and develop their robots. I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve accomplished.”
For two of her students, this year’s achievement means a little more.
“Kaiden Legg and Patrick Bragg were on last year’s team that was bound for world competition,” she said. “Then the pandemic caused it to be cancelled. This is especially satisfying for them.”
Both high school robotics programs began as after-school instruction.
“It took some hard work to get these classes offered at Ravenswood High,” Burks said. “We didn’t have sufficient resources, so it took a year for me to put all the pieces together to make it happen. With the support of Superintendent Hess, grants and other revenue streams, we got a class started last year. Equipment and VEX kits are expensive but we’re getting more as we get more funding.”
Interest at Burks’ school has increased. She started out with one team that made it to the final round of the state tournament last year and this year she will have two classes.
“I’m hoping more girls will get involved,” she said. “Females are underrepresented in robotics, as well as other areas of STEM which are science, technology, engineering and math.
Burks sees hope for the future.
“Our school is offering three computer courses, robotics and engineering,” she said. “If there is any way I can broaden my students' experience in these areas, I’m going to pursue it.”
Final standings for the Jackson County teams were Ripley Team 27183R (second place, first in Encore Challenge), Team 27183V (seventh place), Ravenswood Team A (eighth place), Team B (ninth place) and Ripley Middle Robot Wranglers (second place and Excellence Award).