Robotics Competitions are an invaluable educational tool for the kids, regardless of whether your child is a complete neophyte or a seasoned veteran. Competitions are fun, entertaining, and most importantly, educational. While there are winners, robotics competitions foster a very cooperative educational environment where kids who do well help offer ideas and actually teach others how to do better! There is a joy in the sharing of knowledge that is unlike any other competition I have ever been a part of. This attitude is shared by coaches, mentors, parents, judges, and event organizers. We foster this exact philosphy in our competition classes. It is one of the reasons why we mix different levels of teams together so that ideas are more free flowing. While we don't encourage copying ideas, we do really like the adaptation of ideas to your own design. This is a time honored tradition in engineering. You don't want to re-invent the circle!
We offer two competitions your children can get involved in:
- Vex IQ Challenge for 4th - 8th grade
- Vex for 8th - 12th grade
VEX IQ Challenge
For VEX IQ, we create two person teams, the minimum allowable. We pair kids up by ability and age. This allows us to teach both members of the team as a unit and gives both the opportunity to contribute equally. Each child is given a computer and is assigned either the remote control programming or the autonomous programming. Both are equally demanding and rewarding.
For beginning teams, we have the kids build a standard robot from plans. They are taught how to program autonomously and with the remote control by being given short fun challenges in the first 4-5 weeks of class. Then they are let loose on the competition at hand, where they build a robot of their own design to solve the VEX IQ Challenge. During the building phase, we help by giving suggestions, warnings, and ideas on what to do to solve some of the issues they come up against. They then start programming, which often times has them refining their building design at the same time. It is a great time of discovery.
For advanced teams, building the competition robot happens a lot sooner. We challenge the kids to develop more complex designs, and once design is complete, challenge them with ever more complex programming tasks. Often the challenges come from the kids themselves, where they say, "I would really like the robot to do this, but I don't know how." So together, mentor and students, go about learning how to do the new task.
In these projects we never give the answer to a problem outright, but help the kids discover what the problem is and/or teach the kids the necessary tools/background to solve the problem themselves. When you have their attention about a problem they want to solve, the teaching moments are priceless.
One of the unique things about our competition classes is that we mix ability levels in terms of teams. This gives teams that are just beginning inspiration on what to create and how to program. We actively encourage the sharing of information from both a building and programming standpoint. In fact, we'd rather see the flow of ideas from team to team than from us!
The engineering process: The documentation of the development of the robot is as important as the building and programming of the robot. Teams are required to keep engineering notebooks, which chronicle the development of the robot from ideas to excecution. In addition to the engineering notebook, we start to introduce them to CAD (Computer Aided Design). There is a specific CAD software developed by Autodesk just for VEX IQ and designed to be simple enough for grade schoolers. As the kids advance in their skills, they may well get to the point where they can prototype virtually!
VRC (Vex Robotics Competition)
For VRC, we create 4 person teams. Most of these teams are created from kids that have taken our classes previously. We try to create teams between kids that will get along emotionally, intellectually and complement each other’s abilities. VRC is a large project that really requires team work and division of duties. Our goal is to have the kids use each other's strengths to complete the project. As the robot comes together and when things settle down, we start cross-training the kids to expand their knowledge and awareness and make a stronger, more confident team.
As the teams progress in their knowledge and proficiency, we constantly add more “toys” to their arsenal, increasing their abilities as well as the challenges that they face. Things like Holonomic drives, pneumatics and the like. As their sophistication increases, so does the equipment. We have found that this steady progression of adding toys sparks new enthusiasm each and every year, as well as allows real mastery of simpler concepts along the way.
Teams learn that design is an iterative process. One of the great things about VRC is the length of the competition; it stretches for 6 months, from September to March. This allows teams to go through the standard engineering process of iterations! New ideas come to mind along the way, so it is perfectly common for robots to be re-designed, tweaked or completely rebuilt as the season goes along and inspiration strikes.