Post-Graduate Robotics Class Participates in Annual VEX Competition

One unique aspect of Andover’s Science Department is Physics 420 Robotics, a class open only to Post-Graduates during Fall Term. This year, the PGs enrolled in the course participated in the VEX Robotics Competition on October 20, one of many tournaments hosted by the VEX organization.

The tournament took place at Trinity High School in Manchester, N.H.

Jess Moses PG ’19, who competed in the regional tournament, shared her personal experience of last Saturday’s event.

Moses said, “The competition was very interesting. We stuck out like sore thumbs there, but we came in with so much energy. Our robots were so small compared to the other teams there, but we did pretty well for ourselves.”

According to Moses, another Andover team won third place in the competition.

Moses said, “We left early, so we didn’t see the end results. Building up to the competition, we were building our robots and coding them. Coding was hard, and that was probably one of the biggest obstacles. It took us a while, and we thought our robots were amazing. Then we got to the competition, and we were in for a rude awakening.”

Lorenzo Mills PG ’19 said he enjoyed his time at the tournament and thought his classmates competed well despite having little prior experience. For some students, this fall marked their first experiences with robotics.

Mills wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “I had a great experience competing against other schools’ robots, especially since it was my first robotic event. I feel like within the few short weeks of building, programming, and testing out our robot, the overall performance of the class did well for it being our first time. We didn’t have much time being able to get used to and make adjustments to the robots, but when we got there everything seemed to work out and we competed.”

In VEX Robotics Competitions, teams of students are tasked with building robots that compete against each other in a series games. According to Carol Artacho, Instructor in Physics, the games are played in a 12-by-12-foot square arena.

In an email to The Phillipian, Artacho wrote, “VEX designs a game every year, and teams with robots all over the world compete through the winter to qualify for a spot at the World Competition in April.”

She added, “The game details change every year, but the general structure remains the same: 12-feet-by-12-feet arena, two alliances per match. There are two robots each, and matches of two minutes. The first 15 seconds are in autonomous code (i.e. the robot moves by itself, without being controlled by a driver).”

According to Marcus Filien PG ’19, students started the process of designing their robots by learning how to code, and then assembling a clawbot robot as a base model.

“Once we had that assembled, we coded the robot. We programmed the robot using the same coding program, and then we began to play around with the function a little bit… The competition was up and down. Our alliances won a couple matches, and we lost a couple. It was a good experience, and I enjoyed going and actually competing,” said Filien.

Artacho complimented the skill sets and attitudes that her Post-Graduate students not only brought to the competition but also display each day in class.

Artacho wrote, “Having a PG-only class in the fall is certainly a unique experience. PGs bring a lot of experience, classroom savviness, and personal maturity and commitment into the classroom. At the same time, they’re new to the school, so they’re trying to figure out their place at [Andover] and how the Academy works. It is remarkable how through the term they connect and grow together, and I’d like to think that having a PG-only space in robotics is part of the glue that creates these friendships and connections.”

Artacho thought that there were “many takeaways” from this experience. The course served as both a space for bonding and teaching an important set of lessons for the students to use in the future.

Artacho wrote, “I hope students walk away with two clear messages. One, that science is exciting, practical, and real, and that we can play hard and work hard at the same time. Science is so much more than a textbook! Two, I hope they recognize that stepping out of their comfort zone can lead to some exciting and rewarding experiences.”

For Mills, the competition was a cross of both work and play. One highlight for him was seeing the robots built by him and his classmates in action.

“The atmosphere was great, high intensity and everyone enjoying themselves, having fun. My favorite part was of course getting to go up against the other robots, but also watching my classmates compete was fun as well. I know next time to be more prepared and be more organized when attending the robotics competition, but all in all it was a good experience,” said Mills.

Among the core reasons Artacho provided for requiring her students to participate in the tournament every year, the main was the visible challenge for the student. Artacho believes that the challenge will act as an opportunity for improvement.

Artacho wrote, “Attending a tournament during the term is an integral part of the robotics class, for many reasons. It offers a real, tangible goal to work towards throughout the term. It’s also an external objective measure of our success in the building process — it’s one thing to see you robot work in the makerspace, it’s very different to score and hold your own at a game with a bunch of other robots and schools. The competition is also a fantastic team experience; it builds community among our students, and it also builds community with other schools.”

Isabel Castro PG ’19 thought that building the robot was more difficult than coding the robot.

“Physically building the robot was a problem for me, and the coding part on its own was fine, but once you tried combining the coding with downloading it onto the physical robot, a lot of the different ports and the motors wouldn’t connect well. So a lot of us ended up going to the competition, and the claw wouldn’t work, or it would only be able to go backwards and forwards,” said Castro.

Artacho sees the VEX tournament as an opportunity for the students to implement collaborative skills and learn how to navigate unfamiliar situations.

Artacho wrote, “Through this process, students have demystified building, writing code, troubleshooting, failing spectacularly as well as succeeding spectacularly… It’s all part of the process, and they can be part of it, even if they originally thought they couldn’t. The competition is a window into a world that they didn’t know before, certainly worth experiencing.”