Local students are hoping for a slam dunk with the second annual Jackson County VEX Robotics Tournament.
Playing the game Nothing But Net, robotics teams from Brownstown Central, Crothersville, Seymour and Trinity Lutheran high schools will use robots to pick up softball-sized balls and place them in goals of various heights.
Two teams will battle it out in the arena at a time, and the last one standing in the double-elimination tournament will be the winner.
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The competition is set to begin at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Jackson County Learning Center, 323 Dupont Drive, Seymour. The public is invited to watch the action for free.
“The object of the game is to attain a higher score than the opposing team by scoring your balls and bonus balls in low and high goals by elevating robots in your climbing zone,” said Jackie Hill, workforce director for Jackson County Industrial Development Corp.
“There are different levels of nets, so then it’s determining which net you want to load the balls in,” she said. “It’s kind of a strategy part of it, too. That’s the way it was last year, too — do you go after the simplest one and just load it up with balls or do you do more of the higher-level, high-skilled objects to score?”
Trinity Lutheran will look to defend its title. It earned the traveling trophy last year, adding to its collection in a display case at the school since a robotics club started in 2009.
This school year, Trinity has competed in four large tournaments with 30 to 50 robots. The 10-member team placed third twice and qualified for the state championship tournament, which was in March.
Club adviser Dallas Goecker said the team has been meeting twice a week throughout the school year.
“We built a third robot in preparation for the county tournament,” he said. “In the other tournaments, each robot competes on its own for most of the matches. However, in this county tournament, robots will be working together only with other robots from the same school.”
Goecker said the two main robots the team built and had competed with this school year do not work well together because they share the same strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s like having a football team with two great quarterbacks but no one who is good at catching the ball,” he said. “We built a third robot that will complement the others when competing together.”
This year’s county tournament will be different because the robots are throwing things.
“One of our robots does not even have drive wheels,” Goecker said. “It sits at the starting point and can shoot the balls from there. It relies on the teammate to bring the balls to it.”
Seymour coach Jeremy Wischmeier said his 15 students have not competed in any other competitions this school year. They plan to bring six robots to the county tournament.
Since returning from Thanksgiving break, the team has been meeting two or three nights a week for an hour-and-a-half.
“Students have built all new robots for the competition,” Wischmeier said. “I am looking forward to seeing all of the different robots the students have designed to complete the task.”
Wischmeier said he’s glad a county tournament was established last year.
“The competition provides the local sportsmanship and rivalry that many other sports have,” he said. “It provides motivation and enthusiasm for a team sport for students who may not otherwise compete in a sport.”
Brownstown will have about eight of its 20 robotics club students at the competition. To prepare for their only tournament of the year, students have worked during study hall and after school.
“We have been trying to get robots together to run test runs and trying to simulate how the competition works,” coach Jade Peters said. “Kids sometimes think that they have the perfect design until they start using it, and then they realize they need to add this or that. It’s fun to watch them learn and figure it out.”
Peters said he is interested to see how the teams do at this year’s tournament.
“The county competition is great,” he said. “It gets all students together and using their minds to solve a problem. It’s amazing how once we get there, and if we need something, teams from all schools try to help each other out. It’s great to see everyone working together.”
Crothersville had a robotics club for the first time last year, drawing 20 students in Grades 6 through 12. Hope McMannamy oversaw the program last year, but she moved on to a different job, so Russ Sanders was tabbed to lead the group.
At the county competition, Sanders will have seven seventh-graders competing against high-schoolers from the other schools.
“We meet twice a week for a total of three hours, but here lately, we have been working extra to get a working prototype,” Sanders said. “We have been using the method called trial-and-error. Right now, we are just looking forward to having a robot that works and can compete.”
He said it will be a good challenge for his seventh-graders competing against experienced older students.
“I think it is great, and it gives the students a chance to compete with other schools on a different level other than just athletics,” Sanders said. “I like working with the students and seeing them grow in their knowledge and skill level.”
Last year, JCIDC’s workforce partnership received a grant of nearly $3,400 from Jackson County United Way to buy robots and start robotics programs at Crothersville and Medora. That also provided funding for last year’s county competition.
Medora has a program this school year that is led by engineers from Cummins Seymour Engine Plant, but Hill said the team isn’t ready to compete in this year’s county competition.
The workforce partnership also receives funding from the Jackson County Education Coalition to purchase the VEX games and help county schools pay for tournament registration fees and upgrade their robots.
Hill said last year’s county tournament drew about 150 people and featured friendly competition.
“First of all, the attendance, we had no idea what to expect and were very surprised and very glad of the people that came in to watch the event. It was awesome,” she said.
“But what we witnessed throughout the evening is one of the schools in particular, their robots worked before they got there, but when they got there, they weren’t working,” she said. “So it wasn’t only the team members from that team that were working on the robots, we saw kids from other teams that were coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this. This might help.’ They were there to compete against each other, but yet they were there to support each other, so it was really kind of a laid-back atmosphere.”
Having robotics programs at all county schools is part of a pathway into robotics.
A Lego robotics camp was offered to third- through sixth-graders for the first time last summer, and that’s planned again this year. This summer, there also will be an engineering camp for middle-schoolers.
JCIDC also has partnered with Jackson County 4-H to create access to robotics. A grant helped 4-H purchase Lego robots, and a Leap Into Robotics event was conducted in March in hopes of generating interest to start a county robotics club.
“We’re real excited about 4-H being a part of the program because I think that’s another pipeline of kids that we can bring into this whole mix,” Hill said. “We’re going to get some high school kids that can serve as mentors for the younger kids so we’re continually building up that interest so that then as we go along, the program builds because we have the kids engaged at a younger age moving forward.”
Down the road, Hill said it’s possible a high school 4-H team could be added to the county robotics competition. That would require organizers to find a different location for the tournament that offers more space.
What: Jackson County VEX Robotics Tournament
When: 5 p.m. Thursday (registration and warmups begin at 4 p.m.)
Where: Jackson County Learning Center, 323 Dupont Drive, Seymour
Who: Teams from Brownstown Central, Crothersville, Seymour and Trinity Lutheran high schools will compete
Admission: Free; the public is invited to attend
For information about VEX robots and competitions, visit vexrobotics.com.