PEMBROKE — The playing field is small, a 12-by-12-foot foam mat divided by a bump and trough and surrounded by a sheet metal and lexan perimeter. The robots are also small, fitting within an 18-by-18-by-18-inch space to start, although they have extensions used during the active play in VEX Robotics competitions.
The competition is big. There are 10,000 VEX Robotics teams world wide who compete to qualify for the world championships later this month. In addition to bragging rights for the winners, participants in the VEX Robotics program are eligible for a number of college scholarships.
The students who participate do their own designing, building, programming and testing of the robots, so they benefit from the learning involved, including any mistakes. No big big company sponsors, no professional engineers “helping,” and just one student or adult “mentor” permitted.
Pembroke Academy hosted a scrimmage Saturday for the 10 New Hampshire VEX robotics teams and another eight from the region who will compete at the VEX World Championships April 23-26 in Anaheim, Calif.
Pembroke will send three teams, Trinity High School in Manchester will send five, and Pinkerton Academy in Derry and Kennett High School in North Conway will each send one team to the world championships.
New Hampshire teams were among 348 competing for 21 slots allocated to the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island region. New Hampshire teams won 10.Pembroke Academy science teacher David Kelly, who received the Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical in 2011, spent his year creating regional VEX Robotics competitions throughout the state for high school students.
The goal was to have the students experience and embrace STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics— by designing, building, programming, and, of course, competing, as a way to stimulate interest in engineering. Kelly said it works. The robotics course is now a year-long credit course at Pembroke Academy.
A longtime science teacher with a passion for robotics, Kelly started participating with Dean Kamen’s FIRST robotics program. For a while after the VEX program started, he did both. But the VEX program is his favorite and clearly not just his. The VEX competition started just six years ago with 150 teams, but it now has 10,000 teams worldwide.
“It’s more grassroots, more accessible, and it can be done in a classroom,” he said. It starts with a kit of parts, but skill and imagination make the robots individual.At Pembroke Academy, “It’s heavier on the boys, but we do have girls,” said Kelly. “We get a really good mix of ability levels.”
While the program started at the high school level, now there are middle school teams. The high school students work with the middle schoolers and Kelly said Three Rivers School has four robots of its own.
Last week, which was National Robotics Week, some of the Pembroke students who participate in the VEX challenge were tweaking, and in some cases, completely rebuilding, their robots for the two-minute competition rounds: the first 15 seconds autonomous operation and the remaining 1:45 seconds controller operated.
While most participants want offensive robots, Pembroke students last week built some defensive robots to make the scrimmage “interesting.” It was also a good way to try out some strategies because while most two-robot teams have two offensive robots, there will be some teams fielding a defensive robot in Anaheim.The challenge changes every year. This year’s is Toss Up, using large and small balls. The new challenge will be revealed at the world competition. That’s only fair, said Kelly, because students in the Southern Hemisphere have a different school year.
While there were only four students working on robots and strategy in the Pembroke Academy classroom one afternoon last week, due to it being an early release day, Kelly said the kids are there until about 5 p.m. most days.
Eighteen-year-old senior Deven Couturier was rebuilding a robot. He built the original for programming skills, he said, and it was tops in New England. But, he said: “It wasn’t competitive for matches.”
This version was going to be more competitite, he said. But first he had to get a stripped screw out of his creation.
Junior Joe Landry is going to Anaheim, where he can meet up with some of the VEX participants with whom he Skypes after he gets home from the lab.
The 17-year-old said he started working on VEX robots in eighth grade and this will be his third trip to the Worlds.
“It’s all about engineering,” he said.
Jason White, a 17-year-old junior, said he started with Legos and progressed to building robots.
He doesn’t come from an engineering family, but he gets plenty of support. His father built him a robot practice field at home. “My parents like the time I spend on this,” he said.
Junior Raymond Jenks is in his third year of participation at 16. “Sophomore year I started my own team, he said. “It’s always two against two.”
Jenks said: “There’s a lot of strategy involved. You have to be very flexible.”