2019 News Stories

USF-hosted robotics competition showcases student skills in problem-solving, teamwork

At eight years old, Ricardo de la Paz was fusing wires and making his own motorized toys for fun. Now, as a sophomore at Hialeah Gardens High School, he and the rest of his school’s team are competing to qualify for the VEX Robotics World Championship.

The University of South Florida’s College of Education hosted the USF VEX Robotics Signature event, a competition developed by the REC Foundation that could provide an opportunity for many students to achieve their goal of attending the World Championships competition later this year. With more than 50 teams competing, de la Paz and two of his teammates, Armando del Aguila and Javier Reyes, said they were excited to participate in the signature event.

“For the past six months we would stay until 7 p.m. every day after school,” del Aguila said. “We’ve probably put in over 500 hours.”

The VEX Robotics Competition is the world’s largest and fastest-growing middle and high school robotics competition. With guidance from teachers and mentors, students design and build robots to compete with more than 1,600 teams from around the world.

A former STEM student herself, College of Education doctoral student Simone Brookins-Jenkins served as a coordinator for the VEX event, and said her interest in technology peaked during her time as a K-12 student, as it does for many students who participate in VEX events.

“We can talk all day long about technological advancement with our students in the classroom,” Brookins-Jenkins said. “Unless they have the opportunity to see how it applies or how they can take the technology and bring it to life, it has no meaning. Robotics gives life and brings meaning to technological instruction.”

The student team, named Gladiators, were influenced to participate in competitive robotics by their school’s yearly breakdown of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum. Lessons in isolated physics helped the students build the torque gear, information technology classes helped program the autonomous movement of the robot, and computer science skills aided in their 3D drafting skills.

Each year, the REC Foundation develops a game that each team’s robot must be programmed to compete against other teams at the event. This year’s game Turning Point, resulted in Gladiator’s robot, Cobra, being programmed to strike nine flags by catapulting tennis balls. The team built the robot to utilize a linear puncture, or pull-back method to catapult the tennis balls into the flags, as well as rotating cylinders to flip and stack saucers.

Each team’s robot works independently against the clock to assess skill, and the real competition comes to play when two teams come together to form an alliance.

“We have developed strategies,” del Aguila said. “But don’t plan until the moment.”

The competition not only teaches students about science and engineering, it also provides them with an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills that will serve them well in their future careers.

"Participants learn so much from this type of event. They not only have the opportunity to compete against teams from all over the country—they are able to collaborate, learn and build lifelong friendships with these teams,” said Stephanie Holmquist Johnson, PhD, Associate Director of Innovative Education Initiatives for the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “These students are our future engineers, teachers, and business leaders, and USF is the perfect host for this event as it exposes talented students to a top 25 public research university and provides them with the opportunity to meet and speak with USF faculty and students about their futures and how the university can support their goals.”

During the final match of the competition, Del Aguila said their robot’s fuse fried. Scrambling to reprogram the coding system, the team replaced and fixed the fuse in less than 15 minutes, a task which normally can take a couple hours to accomplish.  

“I would be lying if I said it was perfect,” he said. “It’s trial and error to find a solution. But, in the end, we came together to fix the problem and push forward together as a team.”

Story by Chelsea Grosbeck, Video by Nada Blassy