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The VEX Robotics Championship is underway in Anaheim CA with 760 teams competing at all levels from elementary school (VEX IQ) through middle school and high school (VEX Robotics Challenge) as well as university (VEX U). Over 10,000 teams worldwide compete locally and regionally to qualify for the World Championships and they come from 50 states and 32 countries. I was there for an Advisory Council meeting, and got a chance to meet the founders of Vex Robotics and meet some of this year’s competitors.

The Story of VEX Robotics

VEX Robotics is the brainchild of two men, Bob Mimlitch and Tony Norman who went to high school together in Greenville, Texas and then later worked together at a defense contractor in the same town. Bob was a mechanical engineer and Tony was an electrical engineer. They also worked together volunteering for local FIRST Robotics teams. Out of that experience as mentors, they developed a unique ability to provide tech support to teams, which led them to improving to the design and contributing components to the FIRST kit. Bob said that the two of them learned everything from FIRST, “not just as mentors, but how to become better engineers, just as the kids do.” They eventually decided to go on their own, starting a company and launching a robotics competition of their own, based on what they learned from FIRST.

The company they started, Innovation First, produced VEX Robotics as a more affordable and accessible alternative for participants in educational robotics programs. In addition to VEX Robotics, they also developed the popular HexBot toys, which are sold worldwide through retail stores. The Robotics Education and Competition is a non-profit that organizes the competitions and holds events like the World Championships.

FIRST and VEX

As I understand it, there are several key differences between FIRST and VEX. However, there are students and teams who do both and while the VEX Robotics founders are aware of the differences, they also speak with respect for FIRST. In other words, while they are different programs that might appeal to different students, they share many of the same goals, the chief of which is inspiring young people to engage in the practice of STEM.

    1. Participating in VEX Robotics is not as costly as FIRST, and it doesn’t require the same amount of specialized engineering expertise and access to fabrication tools.
    2. Its mentors are mostly parents, not professional engineers.
    3. FIRST has a very small, six-week build window from when the kit arrives until the robot must be completed. VEX Robotics is a year-long process, which means students can build and compete iteratively. The new challenge is announced at the end of the World Championships.
    4. Teams are smaller in VEX Robotics, usually about 4 students, and this means that all students can be involved in the build process.

The VEX Robotics Competition has grown considerably over the past four years. Its founders recall everyone fitting under a tent on the ground in Orlando, and now it is held at the Anaheim Convention Center, which is one of the few venues that can hold them.

A Quick Tour

Jonathan Paras, a student ambassador from Pennsylvania, gave a group of us a morning tour of the different “pit” areas where teams set up and prepare for the competition. He came from a private school that had five teams and he estimated that it cost each team about $5K per robot to compete, money which the school came up with. Paras, who is heading to MIT in the fall, said that the VEX Robotics Program was integrated into his school. “The real benefit of the program was that students learned how to get a group of people together and leverage their skills,” he remarked.

We walked past teams from China, Columbia and South Korea, as well as teams from rural towns and larger cities in America.

Paras explained that the basic kit comes with a standard set of parts for construction of the robot, along with 10 motors and a central “cortex.” The robot itself must fit into a 18x18x18 cube. Each robot is inspected, examining its mechanical components, cortex and motors. Apparently, this year several groups from China had violated the rules by tampering with their motors, and the consequences were not yet clear. The components for building the VEX IQ robots are plastic and don’t require tools for assembly.

From inspection stations, competitors could choose to test their robot in practice fields before eventually going to compete in an arena. The robot must perform a set of tasks in two phases: one with a driver and the other autonomously.

The VEX Robotics Competition depends on volunteers for its success, engaging parents, teachers and others in organizing the event.

Joe Walker Middle School, Lancaster, CA

I met members of the Joe Walker Middle School Team. Cody, an enthusiastic 8th grader is the captain of the team. He will do the driving of the robot. Matt Anderson is a teacher at the school who got the program started and he had been introducing VEX IQ into elementary school so that his incoming students will have previous experience with robots. The school just got a MakerBot and one of the students, Cole, has been modeling the robot and printing it out, which could allow him to test new designs faster than actually building them with the VEX kit. Next year, Cody and his other classmates will have to take on the task of starting a VEX Robotics club at the high school that they will attend next year.

NASA Support for VEX Robotics

Dave Lavery of NASA spoke at Thursday’s ceremony in the large arena about the relevance of building robots for competition and why NASA believes such competitions are valuable and important. He said in a competition like VEX or FIRST, “you learn to meet deadlines and work within constraints.” He remarked that at NASA if you wanted to work on a mission that went to Mars or other planets, missing a deadline meant missing a launch window that might impact the project for months or even many years. There are limitations on the kinds of materials that can be sent into space, and he mentioned other constraints such as weight, volume and power. He said that you had to respect the rules, which might have been a reference to the teams who had not passed inspection. He said that NASA wants to hire engineers who have “experience working with a team, working within a budget, working within the rules, and working within constraints.”

Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand

There are 80 teams in Auckland, New Zealand, where it is practically a high school requirement. I met a team from Massey University, which Bob had called to my attention because of the way they “evolved” a design for competition. Bob told me that Massey had four teams and each team built their own robot, and then they competed against each other. After the competition determined a winning design, the other teams copied it, and then they would compete again. Through this iterative process, a design could get better and better, as well as incorporate new adaptations.

The Massey team’s robot had a full set of electronics, including video cameras and sensors.

Here is a photo of Hayden, Tim, Max and David along with Bob M of VEX Robotics. Dr. Frazer Noble was the faculty leader for the team. This was a fun group with a lot of spirit and expertise. They seem to reflect the international character of the competition as well as the enthusiasm of the many competitors.

I wish all of them well, regardless of who ends up in the Vex Dome at the end.

Random Acts of Making

I saw evidence of random acts of making — groups of students who made things that were fun and enjoyable, apart from the competition, and just to show off a bit. This Nerf-gun mounted on a Robot built from last year’s kit of parts was roaming the aisles.

Nerf-gun

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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