Hundreds of elementary and middle school students, parents, and families watched as weeks of hard work came down to a few moments on the competition floor at Mid-America Science Park. Each team competes in at least eight matches to see whether the robot they created can complete the challenge placed before them. The top teams with the greatest amount of points move forward to the state competition.
Despite the wins or losses, the skills the elementary and middle school students learn through participating in robotics will last a lifetime, and those learned skills are what Scott County is investing in for the future.
“We didn’t have a lot of robotics here with industry using automation programming,” said Ray Niehaus, Managing Director of Innovation and Technology at MASP. “We wanted students to be ready for automation in industry.”
Through robotics, students learn critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills. The students have to work together to build a robot that will complete the challenge outlined by the VEX IQ Challenge. This year’s theme is called Ringmaster, which is played on a rectangular table that is 4-feet-by-8-feet. The teams not only compete against each other in skills challenges, but the opposing teams work together in an alliance for a collaborative challenge. The teams work to obtain the highest score by moving rings to posts, emptying pegs, and releasing the bonus tray on the field.
“The opportunity is absolutely important,” Niehaus said. “They don’t have a fear of technology. It’s teaching those skills early.”
Not only are the students working on the main competition, but the students also work to solve larger problems by using robots and research. The VEX IQ Challenge also features a STEM Research Project, where this year, students had to solve a problem to help in the distribution of medication, surgical procedures, or as companions for senior citizens, to help in food production, to help in assisting people with special needs, and to help humans perform dangerous tasks. The students had to develop a prototype, research, make a notebook, and present their findings.
At the November competition at MASP, the Red Spinners, an all-female Scott County 4-H team consisting of two private school students, two public school students, and two homeschool students and led by Dawn Voiles, won the STEM Research Project along with the Design Award. The team designed a robot named Carel, a nurse with doll features to help dispense medication, take vital signs, and diffuse essential oils to senior citizens.
“We would not be as successful,” said Bobbie Foster, Scott County 4-H Robotics leader, about MASP and Niehaus. “He keeps the leaders going and the kids excited.”
In a little more than a year, Niehaus and the community worked to grow robotics in Southern Indiana. By having the competitions at MASP, it provides students in this region an opportunity to learn about robotics while building lifelong skills. Without the competitions at MASP, the nearest competitions in the state are located further north near Indianapolis or Lafayette or to the west near Evansville.
“It’s so good for the regional area and the county to have that type of competition,” Niehaus said. “Southern Indiana had very few robotics teams. It’s growing.”