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VEX Robotics World Championship to be held at ESPN Wide World of Sports complex

08 April 2011 by By Steven Ford - Orlando Sentinel

When it comes to robots, Disney really hasn’t put them in the vaulted big-screen position in which it has princesses, sword-wielding heroes or talking animals.

Sure, Wall-E is, perhaps, the best known mechanized character under the Disney banner, but he (it?) really was more a product of Pixar. Ditto for the Omnidroid in “The Incredibles.”

Yet, aside from all the forgettable robots from Disney flicks such as “Treasure Planet,” “Flight of the Navigator” or “The Black Hole,” a closer look at Disney’s theme-park operations shows a far different focus on robotics. From Disney’s innovative and groundbreaking Audio-Animitronics at the Magic Kingdom to the high-tech ride and entertainment technology at Epcot, it’s clear that robotics actually play a robust role in creating a one-of-a-kind experience for Walt Disney World guests.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that one of the biggest student robotic challenges in the world is coming to Walt Disney World next week.

The VEX competition is one of the largest middle- and high-school robotics programs in the world, with more than 2,500 teams from 20 countries playing in more than 200 tournaments each year. The VEX Robotics World Championship is the final event in the 2010-2011 season and will take place at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex next Thursday through Saturday.

According to event organizers, it should attract almost 600 teams and as many as 4,000 people, and the three-day event will coincide with National Robotics Week. (Go ahead, ask your boss if you get time off for that calendar event.)

Kari Byron of The Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" will even emcee the event, serving as master of ceremonies for the final day of competition.

The competition was created in 2007 to help young people learn more about robotics. Middle-school, high-school and college robotics teams from around the world compete at various VEX events throughout the year. Some of the Florida teams competing come from schools in Brandon, Tarpon Springs, Coconut Grove and Miami.

And two Central Florida teams are looking forward to competing, too. One student team, from Melbourne’s Palm Bay High School, has long been involved with the VEX program. The other area team, comprised of middle school students from Clermont, is advancing to the world competition after a late-season, miraculous win in a qualifying stage in March.

The students at Clermont’s East Ridge middle school only launched their robotics program about a year ago. After it formed, though, the instructor who created and led the program left for a job at another school, leaving the students and the program under the auspices of one the school’s math teachers. Adding to the uncertainty of the program at the time was that, when the East Ridge students competed in their first robotics competition, they placed dead last.

But fast forward to last month.

Vic Leslie, an East Ridge pre-algebra and seventh-grade math teacher now tasked with leading the program, said his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students never let their failure or inexperience define them, and the team was able to take a first-place win and advance to the VEX World Championship.

“Every tournament we’ve gone into, there are things we learn to do better. That’s why we keep going back,” Leslie said. “These kids are having fun right now.”

And, fun aside, the kids are learning engineering and scientific principles and skills with real-world interaction.

And, just because the East Ridge Middle School students are new to the big robotic dance, that doesn’t mean the other schools are any less focused on the challenge or any less excited about their participation in the event.

At Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, engineering teacher Matt Conroy says his students have put in months of work – both in the classroom and after school – in preparation for the competition.

Their team, called PiraTech, has participated in the VEX competitions since its inception. In 2009, the PiraTech VEX team even came in third place out of more 3,000 teams.

“This is a way to get more students interested in engineering,” Conroy said. “This is the largest robotics competition in the world, the most competitive and the most affordable.”

Conroy also said the Space Coast engineering culture in which his school is located makes robotics a natural fit and a highly popular topic with his students.

“Next to tourism, that’s what we are,” he said by phone from his classroom in Melbourne, which is just a quick drive south from where NASA has launched successful robotic explorers to Mars. Though those journeys were a little farther (by at least 36 million miles), the Mars Exploration Rovers demonstrated how robots can widen our worlds in very real ways.

And Conroy said the VEX competition also widens the academic worlds of his students.

“It’s a big deal. The kids are excited about it,” he said, adding that “ESPN Wide World of Sports is giving academics the same recognition as athletics.”

And, like the competitive athletic events regularly held at the Disney sports complex, this one is filled with multiple practice and qualifying rounds that will advance the best teams to the ultimate, final competition on Saturday. Also like at other sporting events, the vibe can be loud and raucous as DJs spin music, graffiti artists show off their mad skills and team fans chant for their faves. Also, being an event at Walt Disney World, Mickey, Minnie and Goofy are scheduled to make an appearance, too.

Of course, the loudest commotion probably will come from the hundreds, if not thousands, of young people who will be in their most competitive of moods, even if the competition has an academic slant.

As Clermont’s Leslie said, “It’s like going to a Super Bowl and chess game mixed into one event. It’s incredible.”

The East Ridge team is listed on the roster as ERM Robotics, Team 1365C, yet that’s not what it’s known as by the students at the school, who put a twist on the school nickname of “Spartans” to create their own, robotic-inspired moniker for next week’s event: The “Spartabots.”

Still, for all the rock-concert-like atmosphere of the competition, the event remains one of academic challenges. And the students learn other valuable life skills, too, Leslie said.

“One of the things I like about this (VEX competition) is that the kids also learn social skills. They learn what works and what doesn’t work, and they learn to ask questions,” he said.

In the championship rounds, the students’ self-designed robots will face a series of physical challenges that will test the students’ engineering skills. This year’s main event is a game called “Round Up,” in which the robotic machines must compete in a 12-foot by 12-foot arena to see which robots can pick up the most rings and place them on pegs in a timed competition.

The students have to design their robots, build them, program the robots’ computers and ensure the machines function competitively with sound engineering attributes.

 “The competition is like a football game,” Leslie said. “You need an offense. You need defense. You want a robot that can do both.”

Melbourne’s Conroy sees a similar strategy as the most advantageous, saying he thinks the team that can best master all aspects of the competition will be one of the last ones standing at the end of the grand finals on Saturday. And sometimes, he says, skills beyond engineering, math and mechanical science can be useful, such as marketing.

After all, he says, a team’s ability to market and promote itself can prove beneficial as various teams ally with other teams to advance strategically toward their goal of making the finals.

As for his students achieving that goal? “They have every intention of taking first place,” Conroy said.

Still, he stressed, the competition is more than just a way to add one more award to the school’s trophy case.

 “Basically, the whole thing is to have [the students] motivated to continue with their education and to want to go on to be involved with engineering,” he said.

 Clermont’s Leslie echoed that sentiment, saying the experience of the competition matters more than the outcome of the competition.

“Who knows what will happen?” Leslie said. “Win or lose, who cares? This is a lifetime event. Ten years from now, [the students will] know they were in a robotics tournament at Disney World, and that’s a memory they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”


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