Sheffield — Rumor has it that the Mt. Everett Robotics program needs a new trophy case. On Saturday (December 2), the Middle School VEX Robotics team traveled to the first regional qualifier event of the season in Framingham where they faced 20 teams; Mt. Everett – a k a 19999A or “Hyper Space” — emerged victorious, winning all nine of its regular round matches and sweeping through the playoffs to tally a record of 15-0 to win the competition and earn a spot in the Southern New England Regional Championships to be held in March. When I met the nine middle school team members for lunch on Tuesday at the Sheffield campus, it was business as usual despite the presence of my persistent questions, their robot, and their newest trophy. Program advisor, Chris Thompson, likened watching this particular team converge around the table — to reach consensus on myriad aspects from robot design to programming — as akin to any board room in any corporation in America where individuals come together to broker deals and corporate mergers. Or, in this case, to build robots.
At the end of the day, this engagement of teamwork is what sets them apart from their peers. The team, consisting of 7th and 8th grade students, has been training since July to prepare for the competition season. Paul O’Brien, who partners with Thompson to supervise the team, cuts straight to the chase: “[they] built prototype after prototype after prototype,” before deciding on the winning robot’s design. He further clarified that, “the robot we have now is not the robot that we will win with in the Southern New England Championships.”
Teams have a short period each fall in which to design, fabricate, build, program and test their robots. And in VEX Robotics (Mt. Everett made the switch from Lego last year) they embrace a model of explorative STEM learning. The company states: The study of robotics inherently relates to all facets of STEM, and when students learn through exploration, it increases motivation and desire to succeed.” In a school the size of Mt. Everett — with fewer than 400 students in grades 7-12 — the robotics program is both popular and successful. “On one level, they are learning a general technical field,” Thompson said. On the other hand, they are employing aspects of teamwork “even more evident than on a basketball court where the coach is making decisions — from who starts to what plays are run — because here the kids are making all the calls.” Students take on roles such as engineer, programmer and coach in preparation for competition where the goal is rather simple: teams work in alliance pairs to earn points by dropping stackable cones onto mobile goals. Ironically, the matches themselves are hardly the most intense part of the competition for these students. But when given the opportunity to compete? They are clearly impressive, exhibiting both dedication and cohesion that achieves results.
Members of “Hyper Space” attribute their performance during the autonomous period as contributing to their big win on Saturday. Described by Thompson as, “A non-driver controlled period [during which] the robot is on its own — hopefully with very good instructions,” is not always used, but the Mt. Everett team used it 7 out of 9 times on Saturday. “[The kids] had a very good program, [they] paid attention to detail, [and they] worked together as a team,” noted O’Brien. As to why these kids choose to get involved in robotics in the first place? “Engineering. Fun. Driving,” was Colin Thorp’s answer. “It takes some teamwork [and] it’s fun to work with others,” he added.
The Mt. Everett Robotics program has been in existence for a decade. In that time, the high school team has won three State Championships and the middle school team made it to the quarterfinals at Regionals last year. The popularity and success of the program comes from the commitment of both students and faculty alike. Thompson, who is in his 18th year on the faculty at Mt. Everett, is a 1991 graduate of the school; O’Brien was his science teacher, before moving on to become Director of Technology, a position Thompson ultimately took over and currently holds. “I groomed him,” O’Brien jokes.
In an arena looking to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders, I did notice one thing visibly missing: girls. “Things are changing,” says Thompson, citing the absence of girls from the mix at Mt. Everett. And across the board, in robotics, for that matter. They make up just 24 percent of VEX participants, and there is only one female member of the Mt. Everett team — a paltry 9 percent — which is due to lack of interest, not support by the school. “There are grants available for all girls teams,” Thompson said, “and if we had enough interest, we could have a separate team,” he added, citing the organization Girl Powered as doing just that: working to increase the representation of girls on robotics teams by redefining the face of STEM.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing robotics last year,” says eighth grader Kathryn Barrett (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my daughter) “So I bugged Mr. Thompson [because] I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to continue with robotics — or have to wait a couple years ‘til high school,” if there were not enough girls for a separate team. “I was excited to get back into robotics again — and most of us knew each other well from previous experiences so we were compatible,” she added.
Barrett works happily alongside her male peers — most of whom she had worked with in MakerSpace — and on Saturday she put her strengths to work as a scout. “When scouting [for alliance partners] we looked for a robot that could stack well because we could push mobile goals really well. With a stacking team, it would be really easy [to win] — as that’s our weakness. That would make us compatible.” Thompson and O’Brien noted that most teams at the competition on Saturday had at least a few female members — with several all girl teams — and that they hope to see a rise in interest so they can once again offer an all girl team at Mt. Everett.
The kids wanted to give a shout out to 902E and 4344B — their alliance partners on Saturday — who won the competition with “Hyper Space.” Mt. Everett is the only middle school in Western Massachusetts to participate in VEX Robotics. The team is scheduled for additional competitions in January and February as tune-ups for the regional event. A win or finalist appearance at the regional championship will earn the team a spot in the VEX World Championship to be held in April in Louisville, Kentucky.