VEX Robotics Surging in the Algoma District

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Vex Robotics
Photo Credit: Kiernan Green

Regardless of your own ability to construct a robot or program its movements, the development of the VEX Robotics program in the Algoma District School Board is something that should be on your radar.

The VEX robotics, a platform founded across 16 countries worldwide, is aimed at introducing students grades three to twelve to hands on experience in the engineering and programming of functioning robots, to be used in VEX competitions. While building your own working robot is cool on its own, the VEX platform also prides itself on engaging students in the STEM academic fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the process.

Johnathan Budau, physics teacher and VEX coordinator at Superior Heights, brought the program into Superior Heights when it was first established in 2012. He has enjoyed watching the educational benefits unfold for his students ever since. “This is real life engineering,” Mr. Budau said, summing up the program. He commended the program for its accessibility because of its cost efficiency and ease-to-build robotics design. “There’s no welding, no soldering, and no fancy machinery. It’s all nuts and bolts.” Mr. Budau explained. “It’s nice and simple.”

This is also true for the programming and team building aspects of VEX Robotics. VEX offers pre-set commands that can be applied to robots if students aren’t familiar with the computer coding used to program VEX robots, such as C programming. If students wish to avoid robot programming altogether, other roles are available within a team. This includes robot design and construction, and the piloting of the robot during competition, Mr. Budau explains.

Vex Robotics
Photo Credit: Kiernan Green

“We let the teams sort out what roles the students will individually have. If a student is not proficient with code, they can be an engineer. Some students are natural builders. They sit down with the nuts and bolts and can build a frame within an hour. Some of our students don’t touch the robot, or do any programming, they just happen to be really good drivers. You give a kid a joystick, and they can drive that thing and score like no one else. Then you have the kids who work well under pressure. When you get to the event and an arm breaks or a wheel falls off, and you have twenty minutes to fix it before your next match, is when you really get to see who really works well as a team and can work under pressure and get the job done. It’s a lot of excitement,” says Mr. Budau. This unlimited range of skills sought after in a VEX Robotics student is what has added to the VEX platform’s growing popularity in the Algoma District up to this year.

This growth in popularity can be seen most at the culminating competitions held for VEX teams. The most recent of these being the VEX EDR (high school level) provincial qualifiers, held at Sault College Health and Wellness Centre on December 10th 2016. The 2016 season’s event is called “Starstruck”. It involves VEX teams using their robots to hurl 3D star-shaped objects and cubes across a low rack, similar to a volleyball net. One VEX team of up to ten students (typically three or four) is teamed with another. The two teams, with their two separate robots, attempt to gain more points than the opposing two teams on the other side of the rack by lobbing more objects onto the other side of the rack, while blocking scoring attempts from the other team.

Vex Robotics
Photo Credit: Kiernan Green

Twenty-one robotics teams came from high schools across the district for the provincial qualifier. These schools included Superior Heights, St. Mary’s College, Korah CVS, White Pines CVS, and C.A.S.S from Debarats. High schools from Hornepayne, Wawa, and, for the first time, Blind River, also participated. This provided a record number of registered teams in the district, and Mr. Budau sees the opportunity for even more growth for the program in years to come. “We see this program expanding. I could see 30 to 35 teams between every high school in the entire district.” He said.

The top three teams from the provincial qualifying competition are set to advance to the provincial championships in St. Catharines, on February 24th. These teams are from St. Mary’s, and C.A.S.S, and include an independent team comprised of Korah students.

Rochelle Ansley is a grade 11 student and an engineer for the Superior Height VEX Robotics team ‘Team Rocket’, alongside her friend and fellow engineer Joyce Go, and programmer/sister Anita Ansley. She and her team achieved second-place for the Design Skills Award at the provincial qualifying competition. Their crane-like robot was affectionately named ‘Trashcan’, as the counter balance near the rear of the robot resembled a garbage bag, according to Ansley. “It’s really fun to build the robot. You feel like an actual engineer,” she said. “You have to work around problems and such that arise. I think the benefits of the VEX program come from being able to try something new. You get awesome skills in building. It’s really interesting what you can do and what you can build. You also meet a lot of people – I met a lot of awesome people doing this. We did really well [at the competition], and we had lots of fun.”

It’s because of enlightening experiences such as Rochelle’s that Mr. Budau appreciates the growth of the VEX Robotics platform so much. For him and the students alike, the program is more about allowing for creative expression through scientific, technological, and mathematical experimentation than it is about teaching a specific lesson or working on assigned skills with every session.

Vex Robotics
Photo Credit: Kiernan Green

“Schools are realizing that this is a very valuable program and are supporting their kids,” said Mr. Budua, on the subject of administration support. “The administration has been amazing. I can’t thank them enough for all of their support. We have come to them over the years and every time we’d asked to try something (with the program) they say ‘go ahead, we will support you’. Support is not an issue.” The Algoma District School Board (ADSB) has been incredibly generous in their support for VEX Robotics. However, they only provide approximately 20% of the overall financial support. The remaining 80% of funding for the VEX program in the Algoma district comes from organizations such as TenarisAlgomaTubes, Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO), and Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OSAT).

When asked why they support VEX Robotics in the area over email, TenarisAlgomaTubes responded with this, “Technical education is really important to us at Tenaris because it forms the foundation of what we do. We need people with the right technical skills to not only run our operations at places like TenarisAlgomaTubes, but to find new creative solutions to enhance our systems and infrastructure. We want to provide students with an opportunity to learn technological skills and get excited about careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. That’s why we support VEX Robotics. Tenaris has also been a part of the community of Sault Ste. Marie for over 15 years. We’re proud to be a part of this community and to support programs that provide skill development and generate opportunities for industrial manufacturing.”

With notable support from ADSB and community engineering initiatives such as Tenaris, the students of Superior Heights and other high schools of the district will have the lasting opportunity to pair their creativity and ingenuity with the construction and competition of their VEX robots.

To learn more about VEX Robotics and how you can participate, visit Mr. Budau in room 234.