Three Sparta HS robotics teams advance to state contest

Teams from 10 different high schools competed

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  • Students working together with their robots in the final matches to stack cones and score points Photos by Liam Oakes

  • Sparta High School VEX Robotics Team presents their awards won at the regional competition

by Liam Oakes

— Three teams from Sparta High School’s VEX robotics program will advance to the state championship after succeeding at a regional competition on Jan. 6.

The S-team “Tyrannosaurs VEX,” A-team “Bilboodo,” and Z-team “Endeavoure” of the Sparta VEX Team 5249 will take on the cone-stacking challenge at the New Jersey VEX Robotics Competition State Championships next month.

Mark Meola, teacher of applied technology and team coach, said that it was a “banner day” for the Sparta robotics team.

Over 28 teams from ten different high schools competed in the Sparta High School gymnasium. Initially, there were 46 teams scheduled to attend the event, but because of the freezing temperatures, many teams were unable to compete after their schools canceled all activities for that day.

The VEX Robotics Competition, organized by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (REC), is a robotics program for middle school and high school students, where they have the opportunity to construct a robot that effectively completes a challenge released in the spring. The REC reveals a new game each year after the international championships in late April, allowing students to get a head start on their ideas and design for the following season.

This year’s game, called “In the Zone,” challenges students to construct a robot that will effectively score their alliance the most points during a match. On the field, there are two alliances, red and blue, that comprise of two randomly selected teams. The teams must work collaboratively with their robots on the field to accomplish this goal.

Teams attain points by using their robot to stack cones on goals, stack cones on mobile goals, place the mobile goals into zones, and park the robot in a parking zone. Matches begin with a 15-second autonomous period, where students have no control of their robot, letting their coding and programming in their robots complete a few tasks for them. Then, the 1-minute-and-45-second game begins.

“The principle behind this event is that there are no defensive robots,” Meola said. “How the students choose to approach it depends on their ability.”

“I always tell the kids that it’s one thing to design and plan in a classroom,” he said. “It’s another thing where they have to come out here and put a game face on and compete, as the intensity rises and you are put under a time pressure. This changes the whole dynamic of what the students are solving for.”

Sparta entered seven robotics teams to compete at this event, of which four teams are students taking Meola’s second level robotics class and three teams are students in an after-school robotics club.

Of the seven teams, the A-team “Bilboodo” made Sparta history when they competed as finalists at the event and won the regional championship. Meola said that this is the first time a Sparta robotics team has made it to states as tournament champions.

In that team are Chad Hannigan, Ian Thomson, and Robert Song, who all take the level-two robotics course. Hannigan and Thomson are both juniors while Song strives as a sophomore.

When asked how he felt about the team’s win, Hannigan said, in shock, “I can’t even believe we won.”

He explained that the team’s robot was missing a component that would earn them more points, and only completed a basic simple task of pushing goals into the zones. It was the strategy they used throughout the matches that allowed their teams and alliances to score the most points and resulted in their team being in the finals alliances.

In the semi-finals matches, the top-ranking teams select alliances of up to three teams. However, these teams must continue to rotate on and off the field as there can only be two teams per alliance during a match.

The Bilboodo team was in an alliance with two other teams from Robot Revolution in Summit.

“It’s very teamwork and coordination oriented,” Thomson said. “You have to work together, especially in the finals matches when you select teams to be in your alliance. There shouldn’t be any friction between teams on the field; it has to run smoothly.”

Thomson also said that this is also the first time that the three students have ever competed in a VEX robotics competition.

Meola said that teams have other opportunities to advance to the state championship. Teams can win an Excellence Award for their work or a Design Award for their robots, or they can take on the Skills Challenge where one team at a time tries to score as many points as possible on the field in a minute.

The S-team “Tyrannosaurs VEX” won an Excellence Award, was a Tournament Finalist, and won 2nd place in driver and programming skills. The Z-team “Endeavoure” also paved the way to be a Tournament Finalist.

The three teams will compete in the New Jersey state championship against 33 other teams on Feb. 24 at Cherry Hill East High School.

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