ST. GEORGE — Vista School hosted a challenge of wits, strategy, programming and robot building on Saturday.
The school hosted 27 teams from as far as Los Angeles in a VEX Robotics Competition event for this year’s game entitled Change Up. Teams designed small robots from kits of parts and competed both within the game and a skills competition.
The goal of Change Up is to score points by placing grapefruit-sized, team colored balls into tower-like goals spread across the field that can accommodate up to three balls on top of each other. Teams composed of students from grades six all the way through 12 score for having balls in the goal in addition to lining their color ball up in the same row across multiple goals and the bottom-most ball is exposed so that it may be removed from the goal. The game is played between two “alliances,” or a pair of robots from different teams. The “alliance” that scores highest wins the match.
It’s a game designed to promote skills needed to build careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the hot-button and ever-expanding field known as STEM.
“There’s a direct correlation between students that have the opportunity to get into STEM, opportunities like robotics and the careers that they choose,” Jordan Bartholomew, Vista School technology teacher and robotics program coordinator, told St. George News. “If they have good, positive experiences from a younger age, they’re more apt to go into things that are hard like engineering or computer programming or science and mathematics. It has a direct connection with that.”
Vista represented 10 of the 27 teams present at the tournament, either directly as a school organization or through Vista Community Education. Other local teams included representatives from Pine View Middle School, Pine View High School, Desert Hills Middle School and Desert Hills High School. Some teams came from other parts of northern Utah, such as the Robo-Bros from Wasatch High School.
One team, calling themselves the Omnibots, traveled from Los Angeles. They made the trek to Ivins because COVID-19 restrictions made competing in California impossible.
When the trio of seniors saw the playing fields the night before competition began, emotions ran high. They hadn’t seen a court for this year’s game yet this season.
“We’ve been doing it for five years,” Omnibots member Leyth Toubassy said. “This is our senior year, our last year, so we wanted to make sure we could still compete. It was nice seeing it all for the last-first time.”
Toubassy and the other two members from Omnibots, Alex Solomon and Miles Lowe, all emphasized how much robotics meant to them. It gave them friendships and an ability to learn about STEM and prepare themselves for careers especially as they near college, they said.
This is the purpose of creating a robotics program, Bartholomew said: to foster those exact things. He said he believes competitive robotics can be a game-changer for young kids in many ways.
“In creating the robotics program, it’s more about creating a community and a network,” Bartholomew said. “One of the biggest focuses in robotics is to prepare these kids, these students with 21st century skills: problem solving, computational thinking, teamwork, collaboration. Robotics packages all that stuff into an awesome program that the kids enjoy.”
He added that it also becomes a way for some kids that don’t have many friends and aren’t into sports to find a social outlet. He said that joining robotics has been a “turning point” for some of his students, giving them confidence and comfort to succeed in school and other facets of life.
Vista has 50 students in its after school robotics program, many of whom were represented in the VEX tournament. All four teams in the finals represented Vista. The championship alliance, composed of the teams Spark and Programmer, What’s That? united a group of middle schoolers, all 13 years of age, with a group of high schoolers to take home the gold.
Spark had a tower of motorized rollers that picked balls off the ground and fed them up the robot to the top of the goals. Programmer, What’s That? used a claw with reversible conveyer belts on a pivot to pull balls in, lift them up and push them out. The two teams were the highest ranked out of qualifying matches and Spark selected Programmer, What’s That as its alliance mate in the final rounds.
Programmer, What’s That? also won the skills challenge, with the event’s highest score for programming and second-highest for driver skills.
There will be another VEX Robotics Competition in St. George on Feb. 6 at Desert Hills Middle School, featuring many of the same teams. More information about the event can be found here.
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