Last week’s VEX Robotics World Championships in Dallas brought together more than 3,000 robotics clubs from elementary, middle and high schools and colleges from across the world to showcase their knowledge and expertise.
Three of those entries came from Etowah County: Duck Springs and Ivalee Elementary Schools, and Etowah Middle School.
Duck Springs and Ivalee have competed in the World Championships before; this was Etowah Middle’s first year ever to go.
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“Our goals have always been to be able to compete and rank at a high level at the worlds competition,” said Etowah’s robotics sponsor, Tammy Basaraba, “We’ve had our robotics program for the past three years and I got involved in it through having kids who were interested in the program because they’ve been involved in it since elementary school.”
Etowah Middle School’s team consisted of Charlie Craft, Trae Boley and Brawlle Beacham, all seventh-graders. While this was Beacham’s first time competing, Craft and Boley had both been to the competition before as elementary school students.
“We have developed programming skills and have learned more about how to build and construct things,” Craft said about his experience with the program. “We have learned teamwork skills and how to develop strategies to accomplish your goals.”
He said for this competition, they brought a robot that could “intake balls, drive around, launch balls into the high goal and hang on a suspended bar.”
“We first build the drivetrain to be fast with a 2 to 1 gear ratio,” he said. “Our intake system is made with sprockets and rubber bands to rotate and suck up balls. Finally, we build a catapult to launch balls into the high goal. It was late in the year before we finally figured out how to get our robot to hang on the bar. The process was difficult, but in the end, it was worth it.”
Craft began working with robotics at Duck Springs Elementary School, which competed on the world level for the fourth time in the program’s history that dates back to 2018.
Duck Springs’ current team consists of sixth-graders Madi Lumpkin, Micheal Wortham and Wilin Gomez, alongside fifth-grader Ella Nance. Program instructor Dustin Quinn said they all have team roles, as well as specialized tasks.
"I love to teach science and math, they are my two favorite subjects,” he said. “When we found out about the robotics grants available, my principal thought I would enjoy teaching robotics.
“The students were eager to have a program that challenged their creativity and competitiveness, and they were successful from the beginning, winning many awards and, this year, placing eighth in their division at worlds,” Quinn said.
The students said they became involved because they found the program to be fun, and thought it would help teach them teamwork and other valuable future skills.
“If I continue with my work in the robotics club, it will allow me to get skills I need to get a job in the future,” said Lumpkin.
Gomez added, “It gives me the ability to help and work with a team."
Duck Springs has been preparing for competition since the beginning of the school year, hoping to improve its award-winning robot.
“To prepare for worlds, the team knew they would need a better robot,” Quinn said. “The robot had to be able to intake and carry more balls to be thrown into the goal. This was a huge undertaking since it had taken from August until January to build their robot. We scheduled practices on several weekends to get the work done.”
The program at Duck Springs has also benefited from the help of Genia Craft, who was involved in starting the robotics team at Ivalee Elementary School eight years ago alongside current instructor Charlotte Hindman.
“My grandchildren attend Duck Springs, and I wanted them to have the opportunity to be involved in the robotics program that I am extremely passionate about,” she said. “The Duck Springs principal, Suzanne Nance, welcomed the idea of a robotics team. She found the perfect partner instructor and supplied the team with ample equipment and never-ending moral support.”
Ivalee competed for the third time this year; its primary team was Bryce Bedell, JL Gargus and Noah Vangilder. The school also has a secondary team, Caleb Battle and JC Garmany.
“This year’s students are amazing,” Hindman said. “COVID caused them to miss being able to participate in this extracurricular activity for a couple of years, but they have risen to the challenge. Their natural talents and abilities have served them well in the learning processes we experience in the club. They are exceptional young men.”
Gargus said their robot was a “beginner robot with some modifications to it” that allowed them to be able to pick up and transfer two small objects at once.
“It feels really good to be able to call ourselves some of the best in the state and to be able to show off our skills and what we’ve learned so far,” added Vangilder.
All three teams have similar goals, in that they hope to keep their students in a fast-paced learning environment to help them thrive in the professional world as they get older.
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“Our goals for the students are to learn to be active problem-solvers through the use of technology,” said Quinn. “Students learn how to code their robots to perform certain tasks, which is not easy, but the students learn to persevere. They also learn to quickly reevaluate their programs and adapt them to meet their objectives. This skill will help them later to meet their life goals.”
Hindman added, “My hope and vision for the teams that come through this program is that it will spark an interest in something greater than a robotics competition. I want them to carry the skills they are learning to the next level. Science, technology, engineering and math careers are and will continue to be in high demand.”
Those involved with the robotics programs are hoping for continued success and more competition at the world level in the future.
“Even though I will be retiring from the program this year, I know our teacher and sponsor for the younger students, Christie Brown, will continue to do an excellent job,” Hindman said.
Basaraba added, “I hope that we all get to continue to grow and have students that successfully make it to worlds each and every year.”
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Etowah County's robotics programs: Who are they, what they do