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VEX Robotics

Robot Overlords Anna Walton, 13, and Gabriel Ulibarri, 14. Photo by Jim Headley

Only 30 teams from Arizona are going to the 2019 VEX Robotics Worlds Championship, and five of them are from Maricopa.

Anna Walton, 13, and Gabriel Ulibarri, 14, both of Maricopa, have qualified for the VEX VRC World Championships in the high school division. The two are not associated with one of the large school programs, like most of the participants in the event, but rather are home schooled.

There are only seven high school teams attending the championships from Arizona.

Ulibarri is a freshman, and Walton is an eighth grader. They are coached by Gabriel’s mother, Michelle Ulibarri, and Anna’s father, Jason Walton. The two have competed together in VEX Robotics four years in the elementary and middle school divisions.

The two will begin competition next Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky, and their team name is the Robot Overlords.

“There is a specific game that they are designing to play this year,” said Michelle Ulibarri. “They know what the game is, then they need to build the robot to accomplish the task. They play with a teammate and they play against teammates. They are only given the parts and the task. They have to come up with how to accomplish that on their own.”

Legacy School in Maricopa qualified two middle school and one elementary team for the VEX Robotics Championship and there is another elementary team qualified from Maricopa.

The competitive high school division of the VEX Robotics World Championship will take place at the Kentucky Exposition Center with 500 teams from around the world compete for the title, including the Robot Overlords.

The Robot Overlords will be placed into an alliance with another team at Worlds and then take on two other teams on the “field” at the same time.

The object is to see how many points can be gathered while attempting to hinder the other side from getting points. The competition is not a robot battle, though there can be some minor contact between the robots.

Teams are scored on pre-programed (autonomous mode) and live remote-controlled competitions. The participants must program the remote control to work with their robot. The students program the robot and the remote by writing computer code in C++.

The teams build their robots for the competition and most of the teams are much larger than the homeschooled Robot Overlords. Teams are usually from well-funded schools.

“There will be 500-plus high school teams from across the world competing,” Anna said. “The teams are however big you are. They can be one person. There are some teams from Arizona going that have 15 kids on one robot because they’re from a school.”

They leave Sunday evening for Kentucky as the competition starts Wednesday and wraps up on Saturday.

The two have no prediction about how well they might do at the world competition, but Gabriel did say, “better than average.”

Anna said it will be very interesting because they could be paired with a Chinese team, and they have to figure out how to communicate with each other, let alone compete in an alliance against two other teams.

“Google Translate is going to be our friend,” Anna said.

Photo by Jim Headley

Leading Edge robotics students in competition earlier this month. Submitted

Maricopa kids know their Vex IQ Robotics.

Students from four local district, charter and home schools qualified for the Feb. 27 state tournament at Microchip Technology Inc. in Chandler.

For the Pima Butte Robotics team, it will be the second state competition in a row.

“This year, we actually had three separate teams building robots, and two of the three teams have qualified for state,” assistant coach Michael Gray said.

Santa Cruz Elementary, also in the Maricopa Unified School District, qualified a team, as did the charter school Leading Edge Academy and the Maricopa Homeschoolers.

The Homeschoolers, whose team name is Light Signal, are the only Maricopa middle school team to reach the state competition. They will compete against 12 other schools.

“This Vex season they’ve won four trophies,” Homeschoolers parent Theresa Walton said. “We are so proud of them.”

Leading Edge has had three teams place in February competitions, and it was the fifth-grade team that qualified for state. They were fourth overall at the Sequoia High School Classic, and they took first place and the trophy for programming skills at Imagine Prep Superstition.
The MUSD and Leading Edge teams are sponsored by the Ak-Chin STEAM Foundation. There are 18 teams competing in the elementary division.

At the state tournament, six teams can earn a spot in the World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. The winners of the following awards will automatically advance: Middle School Excellence, Teamwork Champions (two), Design Champion, Programming Skills Champion and Robot Skills Champion.

Matches start at 10:30 a.m. Microchip is at 2355 W. Chandler Blvd.

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VEX Robots had a very specific task to perform in competition Saturday at Maricopa High School. Photo by Adam Wolfe

For the first time in school history, Maricopa High School hosted a VEX VRC Robotics competition Saturday.

Twenty teams arrived at MHS to compete in the “Nothing but net” state qualifying event. Over the last three months, teams have been developing robots specifically meant to accurately shoot a ball into a net. Competition winners were able to earn a spot in the state competition at the end of the year.

“The goals of the competitions change every year, so this event is very specific to this year’s,” Ak-Chin STEAM Foundation program coordinator Rachael Burno said. “These teams learn the rules and learn the competition and then build their robots. It’s purely their design. They decide how to program it and how to build it and how to run the robot itself.”

Saturday’s state qualifier consisted of two competitions happening simultaneously. One robot was stationary in the corner of the competition area and heaved shots into the net. A second robot drove around the competition area to collect balls to attempt shots from any distance. Scores were based on the number of shots made.

“It’s going alright,” MHS senior Geovana Garcia said. “We’ve had some struggles but we’re trying to work with it. Hopefully our batteries last longer so we can stay in the competition.”

All four Maricopa teams finished outside the top 10, but each team participated in the finals as part of an alliance. The winning alliance of Team Shockwave and Team Lightning from Desert Vista High School (Phoenix), and Team CG Cybercats from Casa Grande Middle School qualified for the Arizona Interscholastic Association Barrett Foundation Robotics State Tournament with the victory

MHS High School’s “Rams Engineering I” team took home the Judges Award for the team the judges deem deserving of special recognition. Geovana Garcia’s team received the award for having “special attributes, exemplary effort and perseverance at the event that may not fall under other awards.

For MHS, this competition is just the beginning of what they have planned. According to MHS librarian Robin Shoup, the school hopes to hold middle school and elementary school state qualifying competitions next year.


Maricopa High School recently competed in a VEX Robotics event in Casa Grande and will host its own competition for the first time Dec. 12. Photo by Merry Grace

The Maricopa High School VEX Robotics Competition will debut Dec. 12.

Organizers hope it will become an annual event. They are also seeking volunteers

Lead organizer Robin Shoup, librarian at MHS, said the inaugural competition will be small, with about 20 teams participating.

Interest in robotics has been on a slow build in Maricopa Unified School District. With most of the elementary schools, a middle school and the high school, it has blossomed in the past year.

Competition VEX Robotics robot. Photo by Merry Grace
Competition VEX Robotics robot. Photo by Merry Grace

At the high school level, however, maintaining participation can be dicey. Many of the students have work or clubs or other extracurricular activities dividing their time. It has been the career possibilities associated with robotics that has solidified the VEX design system’s presence at MHS.

The new competition, Shoup said, gives a local venue to robotics and grows robotics even more in Maricopa. The event will be a state qualifier.

“I believe in robots and programming and all of that,” Shoup said. “The kids are enthused about it.”

The competition will be in the high school gym, 54012 W. Honeycutt Ave. Doors open at 7:30 a.m., when inspection starts. Judging begins at 9 a.m., pausing only for lunch, with awards at 5:30 p.m.

Maricopa High School students in competition in Casa Grande. Photo by Merry Grace
Maricopa High School students in competition in Casa Grande. Photo by Merry Grace

Besides Maricopa, there will be teams from Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center, Arcadia High School, Prescott High School, Desert Vista High School and others. The competition is sponsored by Maricopa Ak-Chin STEAM Foundation, the school’s engineering club and robotics club.

“I was looking for an overall project for my ‘Introduction to Engineering’ classes for this fall,” Career and Technical Education teacher Charles Miksch said. “I had attended a VEX Robotics competition in Prescott last spring and found both students and team sponsors found the robotics projects rewarding.”

MHS’s CTE department then purchased robots for 30 students in two Engineering 1 classes. Miksch said the classes held an internal competition to determine who would represent MHS at an official competition in Casa Grande on Nov. 14.

One MHS team placed fourth in the qualification round and finished second in the first championship round. Besides the engineering class, robot aficionados have a robotics club headed by MUSD teacher Tyler Jump for support in these kinds of events.

“Freshmen are not eligible to take the engineering classes, and with the groundswell of interest in robotics being generated at the elementary and junior high levels, I was glad to see Mr. Jump agree to lead the robotics club at MHS,” Miksch said.

Shoup said the aspects of technology problem solving fit in with the hands-on learning being promoted at MUSD. Students are responsible for reading game rules and creating a robot that meets the requirements.

At the Maricopa competition, students will vie in the VEX Robotics “Nothing but Net” game. The competition is supported by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation.

Rachael Burno, founder of the Ak-Chin STEAM Foundation, asked Shoup last year if she would organize the Maricopa competition.

Freshman Evan Grace works on a robot during competition. Photo by Merry Grace
Freshman Evan Grace works on a robot during competition. Photo by Merry Grace

“We are encouraging parents to get their kids more involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” Burno said. “A lot of hiring companies are seeing that employees versed in STEM are better employees.”

STEAM adds “A” for art to the mix.

Whatever field students are looking at as a career, from botany to athletics, involves the STEM field of study, she said.

That is why she would like to see parents and the whole Maricopa community supporting the event. Putting on a robotics competition takes a community effort.

“We need volunteers,” Shoup said. “It is all volunteer-run.”

Organizers need volunteers for judging and refereeing, running the information desk, coordinating, announcing, setting up/breaking down, cleaning up and feeding the other volunteers. Students can do some of that, but at least half need to be adults, she said.

520-568-8100, ext. 4147

This story appeared in the December issue of InMaricopa News.

The Robotics program has become so popular it is exceeding its funding and is turning to a unique source to raise more money.

By Adam Wolfe

The VEX robotics teams within the Maricopa Unified School District have gone from one team at Maricopa Elementary School to 14 teams across the district and outgrown the funding available through the Maricopa Ak-Chin STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) Foundation.

The robotics program started with one team at Maricopa Elementary in 2012. Its popularity grew slowly, but the program expanded to two teams in 2013 and five teams in 2014. After competitive success grew with more teams involved, the program has exploded and expects to have 14 teams for the 2015 school year.

The growth of the program is a positive sign for youth wanting to get involved with science, according to program coordinator and Intel employee Rachael Burno. The only issue that comes with the program’s growth is the funding needed to support it. The VEX coordinators have turned to GoFundMe.com to help raise money.

“We are still receiving funding from the STEAM Foundation, but we could have some issues providing equipment to all of the teams,” Burno said. “We have enough funding to cover most of the costs. We were able to purchase five more robots. But we need some help with competition costs and other expenses.”

The goal of the VEX robotics program is to keep today’s youth interested in science and math. It allows students to see real world applications of the processes they learn in class, while also developing technological skills that will be increasingly important as they grow older.

“It’s our way to support STEAM,” Burno said. “Students who have the opportunity to join a program like this are more likely to enter a STEAM career field. My goal is to provide our students with enough opportunities here they can build on to bigger and better opportunities later in life.”

This year, the majority of schools within MUSD have at least one team. Maricopa Elementary has one, Saddleback Elementary School has one, Pima Butte Elementary School has three, Santa Cruz Elementary School has one, Maricopa High School has three, Desert Wind Middle School has one, and Butterfield Elementary School may get a team during the year.

Currently, Santa Rosa Elementary School and Maricopa Wells Middle School do not have teams, but the =VEX program is hoping they’ll join.

Leading Edge Academy is the only non-district school to have a robotics program with three teams. Other charter schools are welcome, but the program needs more funding to support the extra teams.

For students, the robotics program offers a hands-on experience to develop skills with mechanics and programming. For parents, it provides another outlet to get their children socially involved with the school and their fellow classmates.

“My son is a freshman, and that is one of the clubs he wanted to be a part of,” active parent Merry Grace said. “It’s not just a high school thing. They have programs throughout the district, and it’s important to keep kids interested in things like this. Otherwise, what will they turn their attention to?”

With so many products existing that keep children inside and sheltered away from others, the school district and the STEAM Foundation are trying to provide more options for their students to be social while still learning important life skills. If the program can gather more funding, Burno believes the robotics program could just be the beginning.

“We are hoping to expand beyond robotics as well,” Burno said. “We want to introduce students to more extracurricular activities.”

For more information about donating or helping the VEX robotics program, visit www.gofundme.com/MaricopaRobotics.