Creativity, competition flourish in robotics state championship

Students formed teams, constructed robots and pitted them against one another in the statewide robotics competition.

The crowd roared at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena and Events Center.

“30 seconds left in the round. 30 seconds," an announcer blared into the microphone. "Blue team leads red team. Looks like it’s going to be a close one folks.” 

These aren’t the sights and sounds one would expect at a math and engineering contest, but Saturday’s Northern New York VEX Robotics State Championship had all the drama and intrigue of a tightly contested sporting event.

"They really learn self-confidence. They learn that they can do this."
- Dan Larochelle

Teams of middle and high school students from across the state pitted their custom-built robots against one another's for a chance for the chance to earn a spot in the 2015 VEX Robotics World Championship.

Students like Wyatt Haines, a sophomore from Baldwinsville, New York, said the chance to fulfill his dream of creating advanced technologies and share ideas with some of the brightest students across Central New York drew him to the competition.

“I really enjoy construction, building things and operating things,” Haines said. “Here, I can build my own machine and operate it.”

The purpose of the game, known as VEX Skyrise, is for the robots to either stack cubes in a vertical tube or move them into colored stacks of a ring. There are also yellow cylinders that can be stacked to build up points.

For students, that means designing and engineering a machine that can not only move, pick up and carry the cubes, but also react with precision to perform tasks that require pinpoint accuracy.

“I like a lot of the engineering aspects of it,” said high school student Melanie Ragonese. “I like also being able to say, ‘OK, we have a problem with this,’ and trying to figure out how we can fix it.”

Each match consists of an autonomous round which tasked competitors with programming the robots to complete the challenges on their own. The next round put the participants back in the driver’s seat as they manually controlled their robots.

The competition began as a way to develop student interest and skills in computer science and programming. Now, it is a fun but practical way for students to implement what they have learned from the classroom into the real world.

“They really learn self-confidence. They learn that they can do this," said VEX regional manager Dan Larochelle. "In robotics, there is no right answer. It’s all about challenging them to think outside the box, and learn from their failures."

Not only do students apply programming, engineering and math skills for the games, but they also learn how to work cooperatively and solve problems with real applications, Larochelle said.

“I think the biggest thing that we must have learned is that the most important part of this thing is teamwork,” said Isaac Stone, a sophomore high school student from Baldwinsville. “We couldn’t have done this without all of us putting all this time into it.”

Larochelle said representatives from local businesses regularly attend and sponsor the VEX competitions, as it’s a chance for employers to find talented engineering students.

“They actually recruit kids from these teams to do direct internships at their companies,” Larochelle said.

The popularity of VEX competitions has grown rapidly. According to Larochelle, only 36 teams competed in the whole state of New York in 2013. Now, there are 200 teams across the state competing in 24 events.

Saturday’s tournament field was made up of 39 teams from the Oswego, Syracuse, Rome and Saratoga areas.

The competition’s four winners advanced to the World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, where they will compete against more than 800 teams from 36 different countries in late April.

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