During most competitions featuring Jackson County schools, there’s a sense of rivalry.

But with the recent county VEX IQ robotics tournament, working together was key.

Throughout the event at Immanuel Lutheran School’s gymnasium in Seymour, a pair of students from one school stood on one side of the 4-by-8-foot arena, and a duo from another school was on the other side.

Playing the game Crossover, they had two minutes to move their robots around the arena to pick up balls, move them to the other side and place them into different levels of a goal. Each student manned the controller for a minute.

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To earn more points, they could park both of the robots on a bridge in the middle of the arena before time expired.

All of the students liked the unique opportunity to talk strategy and work with various students from other county schools.

“Other kids, they are just unique in their own way, and it’s fun to see them and hear them talk,” Immanuel seventh-grader Conner Sims said. “I like that we have to interact and help each other out and not tear each other down. You can really get along together and just have fun.”

In 2016, robotics teams from Immanuel and Seymour Middle School came together one day for a friendly competition.

This year, Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. used money it had allocated for robotics to provide VEX IQ kits to county schools. Instead of doing a county high school robotics tournament, they decided to spark interest in local elementary and middle schools and give them a chance to compete.

Joining Immanuel and Seymour Middle School were middle-schoolers from St. Ambrose Catholic School, Brownstown Central and Crothersville.

Robotics was new to most of the competitors.

Even though Immanuel has had a robotics program in recent years, Sims didn’t get involved until this year.

“I’ve always liked engineering. I used to like Legos a lot,” he said.

During the school year, the team met for 40 minutes twice a week to assemble and program its robots.

“The building part, it was a little bit different, but not much,” Sims said, comparing it to building with Legos. “But the programming and the electronic part, it was very different, and I had to get used to it. I just practiced a lot and just did different things with it.”

Sims said he and the other newcomers learned from those with experience.

“They helped me, and then in return, maybe I was a little bit better in the building part, and I would help them,” he said.

The county competition was fun for Sims because he could apply what he had learned.

“It’s like a final on a test. You just give it all you’ve got,” he said.

Eighth-grader Celeste Huddleston decided to get involved with robotics in her final year at Seymour Middle School.

She was inspired to do so because of her brother.

“At first, my brother was doing it, and my dad started waking me up to go with them,” she said. “Then I got involved with it, and it has pretty much just gone from there.”

Huddleston said it was a learning process.

“It was a lot of instructions, so it was more building, and then programming was a little bit more to think about,” she said. “I think that was more to learn rather than reading instructions.”

The Seymour Middle School team met once or twice a week to work on its robots and prepare for the county competition.

Huddleston said the first part of the competition was nerve-racking since it was a new experience, but she overcame that and liked working with kids from other schools.

“It was really cool to see how they want to do things and their different point of view,” she said. “We’ve had different builds of robots, so we have to compensate for that. That has really been something to learn from, especially with balancing it on the bridge.”

At Crothersville, coach Russ Sanders encouraged sixth-graders to join the robotics team so the school could build its program.

Kaden Brewer said she likes being involved in sports and other activities, so she took him up on that offer.

“I was the only girl, and I thought, ‘Wow! That would be cool to show everyone up’ because I’m really competitive,” she said, smiling. “Then I started doing it for a few weeks and thought it was really, really interesting because I’ve never done it.”

Initially, she said they built robots with metal pieces that the high school teams use, but then they switched to VEX IQ plastic pieces that snap together, and it was much simpler.

The Crothersville students met Mondays and Thursdays during the school year to be ready for the competition.

“Each day, we learned something new about the competition. We learned how it works and how to do it,” Brewer said. “Ever since we’ve been practicing with it, I think coming here was kind of at first scary, but once you get more into it, it gets easier and more fun.”

Brewer said she learned even more about robotics by working with kids from other schools.

“I like it because you get to see how everybody works together,” she said. “I’m not like the type of competitive person where I get upset if I don’t win, but I just like getting to be a part of a group with other kids to get to know them and see how they build things so maybe I could learn some new stuff.”

Brownstown didn’t start on its robots until after spring break. An after-school coding program led to students being introduced to robotics.

Sixth-grader Landon Hehman was among those involved in the after-school program. With plans to study robotic engineering in college, he thought the robotics team would be a good starting point.

“It has been really good,” he said. “I have learned a lot more about coding and about engineering itself. At first, it was sort of difficult, but then it got easier as I understood everything.”

The students met Wednesdays and every other Monday to have their robots ready just in time for the competition.

Hehman said it was fun to compete.

“It has been really nice to meet all of these other people from other schools and work together with them,” he said.

Brownstown plans to start a robotics program at the elementary next school year so interest starts at a younger age.

Sixth-grader Jayse Davis said that’s great to hear.

“There are not very many opportunities to get your feet wet in technology-related subjects, and there are not many classes,” he said. “I want to go to MIT and get a computer engineering degree. I really like the coding and doing blocks and stuff like that, so I hope this knowledge will help me when I get into college.”

St. Ambrose started its robotics program earlier this year. Eighth-grader Ewan Hernandez said he joined so he could gain experience heading into high school.

“It’s interesting how the VEX robotics can lead into engineering,” he said. “How everything is getting more to the future, we kind of need more engineers these days. It’s pretty interesting how technology works and how things are made by it.”

With plans to become an engineer, Hernandez said working with the robots has been a valuable learning experience.

“Programming was quite harder than the building, how to get it to work how you want it to,” he said.

He and the other newcomers went through some trial and error early in the competition, but they were able to learn from others and adjust their robots as the day progressed.

“It feels nice to see how your robots work now, and you can work together with another person,” he said. “No competition that much with another school, no rivalry. You find out who you’re paired with, talk to them about strategy, how everything is going to work and get to know them a little. You learn how they built it and structured it and how they could help you.”

At a glance

Awards were handed out at the end of the county VEX IQ robotics tournament.

The teamwork champions were team 109C Kaden Brewer and Cole Reed from Crothersville Junior-Senior High School with team 920B Trey Morris and Joseph Larison from Seymour Middle School.

The robot skills champion was team 520B Ryan Kleman and Gavin Grimes from Immanuel Lutheran School.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.