Trinity Lutheran High School’s robotics team has a new trophy to display and added the title “County Champions” to its name this week.

The school earned the accolades Thursday night during the Jackson County VEX Robotics tournament. The first-time event took place at the Jackson County Learning Center in Seymour and featured teams from Trinity, Seymour High School, Brownstown Central High School and Crothersville Community Schools.

The atmosphere of the competition was one of both intelligent and spirited enthusiasm and good, old-fashioned rivalry, as teammates cheered each other on and dished out good-natured heckling to those they were up against.

Outside the 12-by-12-foot square arena, parents, family members, local educators and business leaders watched and clapped in support of the students’ hard work, skills and talents.

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But even with a strong desire to win, each team was more interested in learning ways to improve and finding ways to make their robots perform better.

“Within five minutes, we were already trading parts with Brownstown,” Seymour’s coach and technology teacher Jeremy Wischmeier said. “Sure we want to beat them, but we’re here to learn as much from each other as we can.”

Freshman Zack Ellerman said he decided to join Seymour’s team because he thought it would be an interesting way to be more involved at school. Thursday’s competition was his first.

“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he said. “But I like putting the robots together and by competing, you get to see other robots and see who can build the best one.”

He was impressed by Trinity’s performance in the arena.

“They really put a lot into it,” Ellerman said.

With three more years to be on the team, he expects Seymour to get better.

So does Wischmeier, who said he has high hopes for his team and the county robotics program.

“We’re young, but there seems to be a lot of interest, both in and outside the classroom,” he said. “We’ve only competed with Brownstown in the past, so this adds a whole different level and has forced our kids to focus more on the task.”

Wischmeier said students aren’t just building and playing with robots, but are learning critical teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Jackie Hill, workforce development director for Jackson County Industrial Development Corp., said the tournament was meant to be fun, but she hopes students get the bigger picture. The whole point of expanding the VEX robotics program in the county and sponsoring the tournament is to get more kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum and careers, Hill said.

“We want to spark an interest in STEM education amongst middle school and high school students, and we thought adding a competitive element would help us do that,” she said.

She was excited and encouraged by the turnout to the county competition.

“This is great,” she said. “I’m really glad to see so many adults here taking an interest in what these kids are doing,” she said.

All teams were required to design, build and program their entries using VEX Robotics kits before the competition. While in the arena, robots are operated by the students via remote control and those robots are pitted against each other to accomplish a task. In the world of VEX, that task or game changes.

This year, students had to come up with ways to get their robots to pick up red or blue cubes and stack them on posts or build towers on which to stack them. The more cubes they placed on the posts or towers, the more points they earned.

The game is called Skyrise.

Trinity is no stranger to VEX competitions, having won a regional competition. They school placed second at the state level and fifth at the U.S. Open Robotics Championship last year. They’ve also competed in the world event on a couple of occasions. The school was the first in the county to start a robotics team back in 2009. Seymour and Brownstown have had teams for the past three years.

Trinity students Rachel Onken and Bailey Baker said they enjoyed being able to compete on a local level instead of traveling to other areas of the state.

“We know a lot of these people, so it’s cool to be able to see them and compete against them,” she said. “Hopefully, we can be a mentor and help them build their programs too.”

Onken’s main role on the Trinity team is programming, while Baker is more hands on with building the robots.

One of the main reasons Trinity’s program is so strong, is because of their coach, Dallas Goecker, they said. Goecker is a nationally-known robotics engineer who designed a robot that allows him to live here and work in California. He’s also competed in the television show “Battlebots.”

“Trinity is special because we have Dallas,” Onken said. “He pushes us to solve problems and come up with solutions on our own, because he wants us to understand how things work and to do our best.”

Crothersville is the newest addition to the local robotics slate. This is the school’s first year to have a team and Thursday was their first time competing against another school. However, they also proved to be the biggest team, with students in both junior and senior high school participating. They placed third, but walked away with knowledge gained from watching more seasoned teams.

Team leaders Gabriella Walters and Brady Riley, both sophomores, said they are looking forward to coming back next year to compete for the title of county champions.

“We just got the kit two months ago, so I don’t think we did too bad,” Walters said.

She decided to join the club because it was something new at her school.

“We’re a small school so our options for clubs are limited,” she said. “Plus I’m kind of a nerd and I thought it sounded cool.”

Riley said he likes to tinker around with electronics and computers, so building robots was right up his alley.

“Now that we’ve done it, we’re only going to get better,” Riley added.

Organizers hope to be able to add Medora Junior-Senior High School next year to make it a true county-wide competition, Hill said.

Also taking part in the county event were a group of five young engineers from Cummins Seymour Engine Plant. They inspected the robots beforehand to make sure they met certain qualifications and monitored the competition to ensure that all rules were followed.

“It’s always good to have local industry involved as a way to encourage our students to do more and give them another resource for opportunities,” Hill said.

JCIDC secured funding through a grant from Jackson County United Way to help expand the program to Crothersville and to host the tournament.

She continues to look for interested partners to help sponsor and participate in robotics events for students, including the VEX program, a new LEGO robotics program for younger kids and the annual Summer Robotics Camp at Aisin.

If there’s one lesson to learn when dealing with robotics, it’s that often things don’t go the way you want them to, said Brownstown senior Chris Ross.

Like an injured athlete, Ross was sidelined during Thursday’s competition because his robot wouldn’t operate. Instead of standing at the arena, he stayed at the back of the room trying to diagnose and fix the problem.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s just one of those things,” he said.

This is his fourth year to be involved with the school’s engineering and robotics program. He plans to study diesel mechanics at Lincoln Tech next year and said the

Every problem is a learning opportunity, he said, and although he wasn’t able to compete against the other schools, it wasn’t a wasted opportunity.

“We can help each other out and I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad experience doing this,” Ross said.

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.