In room 170 at the Oak Bluffs School there’s a whole lot of robotics going on. I came to check out the grade school robotics girls’ and boys’ teams for the Cape Cod and Islands regional VEX Robotics Competition Turning Point: 2018–19 VRC Game. If you are like me and never heard of this competition, the best thing to do is watch a YouTube video (youtube.com/watch?v=CDDGBcs0TFM) to get a sense of what it’s all about. Essentially, it’s a game in which the red versus the blue teams play against each other using their self-built robots to score the most points with various objects on the 12 x 12-foot playing field, which include 9-inch-wide disks, small flags on poles, 3-inch-diameter balls, and platforms that are just large enough for your robot to sit on top, though it can be knocked off by the opposing team. The game is two minutes long. The first 15 seconds is totally coded. Players can’t touch the remote control, so they have to predetermine what they want to get done on the field. Then they take over the robots, and they have to do their best to flip things and pick up and toss the balls to turn the flags to face the field with their color.
Oak Bluffs engineering teacher and STEAM coordinator Leah Dorr gave me the background. “The Cape Cod Community College got a grant, and they were giving VEX Robotic kits to different schools that were interested in participating in the competition. A ton of different schools around the Cape got these kits, and they all formed different teams who will compete against other schools while also collaborating with others. [There are two team members per side]. I decided to do a girls’ team and a boys’ team because I feel like girls are underrepresented in STEM, and sometimes the dynamic is totally different in an all-girls’ team than in a mixed team. I really wanted to have the girls feel empowered,” Dorr explained.
All the students from the Oak Bluffs School are seventh graders. Thirteen-year-old Rayssa Lacerda explained that they followed the manual to put the basic machine together, but now are tweaking it to make the robot more effective. Twelve-year-old Molly Sylvia showed me the gear, and 13-year-old Amity Harris showed me the claw setup to help flip the disks. Emma Burt, also 13 years old, designed the team logo for their T shirt, and told me, “We raised money for the competition through sponsorships, and those names will be on the back. We also have extra plates to put on the robot, so people could pay extra money to get [their business name] right on top of the robot.” Thirteen-year-olds Heloisa de Freitas and Islabelly Ferreira contributed as well in putting the robot together.
Thirteen-year-olds Everett Dorr and Anthony Elliott and 12-year-old Eli Friedman were working away on the other side of the room. Friedman talked about his love for all things robotic. “I’ve been doing things with them since I was 9,” Eli said. “I’ve always had all the books on robotics that I could have. I heard there was a VEX Robotics and I said, ‘Hey, cool. That sounds really fun.’ I like getting to work with my friends and to work on something to achieve a goal.”
“It’s a good starting point for them this year to get their hands in and find out if they like it. These kids are really enthusiastic,” Leah Dorr said. “After all, they are coming on Friday afternoon after school for an hour and a half, and they’re totally all in, which I think says a lot. It’s a mixture of collaboration and communication, brainstorming. Coming up with new ideas and testing them out to see if they can make something work really well. I think they’re getting a sense of ownership. It’s not just creating robots, but how are they going to solve all these additional problems? I think that what they’re going to get out of it is the possibilities that are out there. Robotics is part of our lives, and understanding it and knowing that this is going to help them thinking through huge problems that are multi-layered is important. Also, you can’t be the one who solves all the problems. You’re going to have to work together.”
Clifford Dorr, IT director at the MVRHS, introduced me to two of the ninth graders on the high school team, 15-year-olds Oliver Door and Kenneth Cook, who were working on their regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon, even though it was school break. Oliver told me that they’re trying to figure out the coding for the 15-second autonomous mode, adding, “Going to the competition definitely looks good for a lot of things, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good thing to know as the world’s technology increases, we’re going to have to know this.” Emphasizing the Robotics Engineering Notebooks, the team has to keep up to date with each session’s work. And this is no random journal, but something the judges will be taking into consideration as well.
Clifford Dorr said that he wants to promote awareness of the program itself in the hopes of getting more robotic teams on the Island so that they can have inter-school competitions. Leah Dorr says for the MV Mini Maker’s Faire, “We hope to have the competition field so people can really see what this is, and build enthusiasm on the Island that this is a really great thing for kids to get involved in and an avenue for expending their creative energy. If we get the field in time, then people can try it out and flip the disk and pick up the balls, so it’s more experiential.”
Make sure to stop by and try your hand yourself with the robots these kids have constructed, and learn how the game is played.
The free Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker’s Faire will take place on Saturday, May 11, at the Ag Hall from 10 am to 4 pm.