Robotics Competition Results and More

DSCN1028We had a successful tournament.  The combined boys/girls team had a total of 5 robots in the competition.  The robot that the girls contributed the most to came in 34th.  Considering this was their first time is this competition, they did really well.  I also had a great time watching the matches and even stepped in to coach one match when we found ourselves shorthanded.

The girls took on many roles–coaching, programming, tightening parts, and driving.  I know it was quite an experience for me and I think it was for them as well.

bj had asked about starting a robotics club.  I have learned a lot from this experience, so I’ll share what I know.  The VEX Robotics competition was a good place to start.  It’s competitive but not cutthroat.  The threshold to entry is relatively low, compared to something like FIRST robotics, and it’s a decent balance of engineering and programming.

So here are some things I’ve learned:

1) You don’t have to know everything or even anything about the particular platform you’re using.  We hired mentors (who ended up winning the Mentors of the Year award) to teach the kids the basics and to work with them along the way.

2) You need a core of committed students.  Generally you need four students willing to spend most if not all of their days after school for a couple of hours for several months, plus competitions that take place on weekends.  If you have interested students who can’t committ that much time, feel free to include them.  They can contribute where they can and might become interested enough to make the commitment next time around.  In VEX, there are awards for team web site, team animation, and other peripherals that are good places for these students to contribute. 

3) Fundraising.  It takes a chunk of change to attend the World competition.  It cost us close to $1k per person for the trip, and then each girl spent $30-40 per day on food.  Next year’s competition is in Disneyland, so it’s not getting any cheaper.  Start fundraising early to defray the costs of the trip.  Many of the teams had corporate sponsors and included those names on their team shirts.  There are also costs for parts for the robots themselves.  The initial robot kit costs close to $600, and you will need many more parts to create the robot design you want. 

As for my time and effort, I was lucky.  The club was essentially run by a woman at our brother school.  I came when I could, which averaged once or twice per week.  I am planning to be more involved next year and am working on a schedule that allows the girls to work on their robot here during club period, and head to the other school to do more work on days they have time.  That might happen every day or three days a week.  It’s very much up in the air right now.  I also was unable to make any of the regional competitions.  I want to make at least one or two of these.  I was not compensated for my “extra” work, but I really don’t feel that it was necessary.  I was essentially rewarded with a trip to Disney World and I am perfectly fine with that.

As for getting students involved, this was completely initiated by the students.  Three of the four participants are graduating, so I’ve begun recruiting for next year.  Luckily, I have several 8th graders who are interested and I’m talking to a few 10th graders as well.  The girls’ success will be featured on the web site, so I hope that will attract more students.  The club will also be listed in the club directory next year, which it wasn’t last year.

Although I think this is a great opportunity, I am also hoping to have a club that focuses on other aspects of CS.  So I’m looking at having a club base on MAKE magazine, where we build and create things from a variety of materials and use microcontrollers to make them come to life.  I might even partner with an art teacher to create something really interesting.  Everyone has different interests and skills and I don’t want to exclude students from opportunities to explore computer science simply because they’re not interested in robotics.  Plus, there isn’t a huge amount of programming in the robotics competition.  It’s something you *can* focus on, but don’t have to.

As I told someone last week, I’m throwing spaghetti against the fridge and seeing what works.  I think it will be a couple of years before I find out what works.