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STEM and the art of robot maintenance

Vex robotics Akron competition 1
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Ethan Boyes, left, and Arabella Truxall, of Elyria High School, work on their robot in between heats at the Vex Robotics State Championship in Akron on Thursday last week.

It was an electric environment inside the John S. Knight Center in Akron Wednesday and Thursday at the Vex Robotics State Championship.

People filled rows of bleachers to watch a series of cage matches: Robots, about a foot and a half tall, bashed themselves against other robots as they attempted to fling discs into baskets for points. The kicker? They’re all piloted by high school students, with a significant number coming from northeast Ohio schools.

Schools are using their robotics clubs – and participation in events like this – to encourage students to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Ethan Boyes, a senior at Elyria High School, and Arabella Truxall, a sophomore, rushed their robot back to their team’s table to fix it up in between heats. Boyes is the driver, while Truxall was keeping notes on a clipboard and watching the team’s progress during their last match.

“I personally love everything (about the competition),” Boyes said. “I love the idea of getting to build, create something, test it, make it better, and then putting it in the field and driving against competitively against other teams.”

Boyes’ and Truxall’s competition is stiff – the winners of the state championship go on to face people from across the globe at the world championships in Dallas – but students also want to show off their swag. Boyes' teammate is wearing a cowboy hat stacked atop another hat and a gold chain; meanwhile, some students are dressed up in suits; Boyes himself has got a giant stuffed T-Rex on his back and dinosaur shorts on

Our team name is T-Rex push-ups,” Boyes explained. "Rexy here has been to every competition so far. She’s our mascot.”

Boyes has gone to the world championship a few times, a feat he hoped to repeat.

Robotics championship akron 2
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
A competition official at the Vex Robotics State Championship in Akron last week checks out students' robot.

Team Coach Mike West says Elyria has a big program, about 100 students, and it starts with students learning the ropes as young as fifth grade. They take all comers, and the work is student-led.

It's all hands off on the adults. Everything that you see here is kids. So they design it on their own. They keep a giant engineering notebook on their own. They write the programs on their own.”

Sam Appleby, with the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School in Akron, says Ohio is widely considered to have one of the tougher state robotics competition circuits.

“In the last couple of years, both Firestone and STEM have been pretty successful getting teams to qualify for the world championship,” he said. “So it's very exciting. And we hope there's more to come from our other schools.”

Akron had a number of teams who qualified for the state championship, including from the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM school, Firestone High School and Ellet High School.

Appleby says that’s a testament to students’ hard work and interest in the fields of STEM. And it’s not easy; students spend multiple days a week and weekends assembling, programming and testing their robots.

Appleby’s students, Xandor Millerheisler and Lucas Benson – members of team “Spoon!?” - said it was a lot of work getting their robot into top shape.

You have to pick out the parts and sometimes you have to fabricate your own parts of the parts that you get from Vex,” Millerheisler said. “Like, for example, all of our aluminum is custom cut to how we need it.”

Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Akron student Xandor Millerheisler checks out his team's robot in preparation for a match at the Vex Robotics State Championship last week in Akron.

Much of that work was done at school, which Appleby said is made possible through the resources available at Akron Public Schools College & Career Academies.

Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School also has a robust robotics program, previously winning multiple honors at several world championships. Craig Kowatch, head coach, said many of the matches are two-on-two, so students must formulate strategies in the heat of the moment with students from other schools. From that, new friendships blossom.

“I think any time kids can get together, and the learning is happening, and at the end, they’re all friends, and they all applaud one another, it’s a good atmosphere,” he said.

Millerheisler and Benson both have aspirations to get into STEM fields – Millerheisler has his eye on computer engineering and Benson wants to go into mechanical engineering with a focus on robotics. Appleby says the skills students learn – things like teamwork, communication and problem-solving – are transferrable to other careers.

STEM High School senior Thomas Hawkins, who is Black, says the Akron clubs are inclusive and encouraged him to look into the STEM field.

On our team, there's one person (who is) Middle Eastern, Hispanic, African American,” he said. “It's very diverse.

That’s an important factor, considering workers in STEM fields overall are almost 70% white, compared to 9% being Black and 7% being Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. Hawkins said he’s hoping to go into computer programming, a fact that had his father, Tom Hawkins, beaming.

“Yeah, (he’ll) take care of dad,” Tom Hawkins said, laughing.

Tom Hawkins said having opportunities available like Akron’s robotics program is a good way to encourage students to consider well-paying STEM jobs, but he said parental support also needs to be there too; without it, some students might not be able to follow through.

STEM fields have also long sought to increase representation with women.

Arabella Truxall, with the T-Rex team from Elyria, is a sophomore but is already considering her STEM future, noting she’s hoping to go into aerospace engineering.

As the day comes to a close and the points are tallied through the various events, northeast Ohio schools cleaned up nicely at the Vex Robotics State Championship. Almost 20 out of the 29 teams going to the world championship next month are coming from northeast Ohio high schools.

Winning teams included T-Rex Pushups, along with three other teams from Elyria; Spoon!? from Akron’s STEM high school, along with four teams from Firestone High School and another STEM high school team; eight teams from Brecksville; and one team from Wooster.

Conor Morris covers education in Northeast Ohio.