Local students prepare for state, world robotics competitions

MERIDEN — Brayden Butts jumped up and down excitedly. “137!” he exclaimed. “We got 137!” Around him, coaches and teammates gave out high-fives and hugs.

Butts is part of a three-person VEX IQ robotics team based in the Wallingford location of CT STEM Academy that competed in a robotics competition at the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden on Saturday.

At the time, 137 was the highest score for the state this season.

Saturday’s competition was the last scrimmage before CT STEM Academy sends six Wallingford-based teams and three Orange-based teams to compete in the CT VEX IQ Challenge State Championship hosted by the Middle School of Plainville in two weeks.

Payoff from a long season

Robotics Director Laura Juárez explained that the robots at Saturday’s competition are the result of a season that started in the fall.

About 22 students gather at the academy’s discovery lab at 9 a.m. every Saturday for three hours. After an all-team meeting, they scatter into their teams of three or four. Under the guidance of a coach, the team builds their robot, writes its code, runs a scrimmage, or practices a necessary skill for competition, like interviewing.

“It’s really the kids who make it happen at the end of the day. They’re the ones taking up their time as well to come every Saturday from October till March,” Juárez said. “They become really passionate about this.”

Based on how the teams do in the statewide championship, some of them might land an invitation to the world competition in Dallas, Texas.

The game is different every year and students are tasked with designing a robot that can meet the new challenge at the beginning of the season.

For this year’s game, students had to create a robot that could activate a puck dispenser and shoot them to a scoring site on the other side of a flat 6 foot by 8 foot field.

Unlike other competitions, VEX IQ is based on a collaborative effort. During minute-long matches, two robots compete together, working with another team to score points. When the robots are not competing in a teamwork match, teams also compete in robot skills challenges where only one robot takes the field to score as many points as possible.

‘We just kind of put it out there’

CT STEM has offered a VEX IQ program for the past seven years. For most of the program’s life, the academy partnered with the Spanish Community of Wallingford to host practices in their common room.

“It was tight,” Juárez remembered, laughing. “I watched all of this grow from nothing. We had no material, nothing. We kind of just put it out there in the hopes that Wallingford was interested in it.”

The academy was invited to Worlds the first year they opened the robotics program, but Juárez attributed it to beginner’s luck. Five years later, she was promoted to Robotics Director and now leads the academy’s competition schedule.

“We’re in our seventh year and we’ve gone to Worlds six times and States six times. And now it’s not luck anymore. Now, it’s more of an accomplishment,” she said.

Going back to Worlds

In the opposite corner of the Boys & Girls Club, another CT STEM Academy team tried to make its robot shooter more powerful. Max Brittain, Dean Clark, Treye Madden and Ayan Patel designed a blocky robot that would feed pucks into a hopper and shoot them out on a revolving belt.

“Sometimes, we call it the train wreck, because that’s what it is,” Britton explained.

The Lego-like plastic parts of VEX IQ robots are often unsteady and robots break down often. Because of this, students have to develop skills to solve problems and manage stress.

“Usually, one problem leads to another problem,” Ayan Patel said.

All the students are in sixth grade and have different strengths. By a group consensus, Clark is the best coder of the group, but Patel and Brittain are the best builders and drivers.

“We went to Worlds last year,” Patel said.

“Yeah, because our robot was actually good last year,” Britton retorted.

The team is in the process of building a better robot for the upcoming States competition and hopes to make it to Worlds again this year. Since VEX IQ is designed for elementary and middle school students aged 10 to 13, the
team will age out of the program next year.

The coaches: giving back

However, CT STEM Academy partners with Gus Robotics in Meriden who offer a more advanced competition calendar for older students. Charli Hughes and Yasmeen Galal went on to Gus Robotics after they aged out of CT STEM, and now volunteer their time coaching younger students.

“It’s been great. I have a lot of memories going through it in middle school,” Hughes said. “That progression is so rewarding, so I try to make it less intimidating for [younger kids].”

Hughes added that VEX IQ contributes teamwork, stress management, and a sense of fun. Hughes and Galal were part of the all-girls team that competed in Worlds in 2019.

“It was upsetting to not see that many girls make it, but it’s good to pave the way for younger girls in STEM,” Galal said.

Galal is currently the coach for Brayden Butts, Caden Giacomarro, and Carlos O’connor. After her team scored their record-breaking 137 points, she led them away to debrief in a corner.

“What’s VEX about?” she asked.

“Teamwork,” her students answered.

lguzman@record-journal.com,Twitter: @lguzm_n

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re, To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.


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