Sophomore robotics students at Happy Valley High School get ready for State Championship

Students at Happy Valley High School watched with glee as their robot ran from end to end of their fenced-in playground in the classroom, picking up blocks with abandon. To them, their creation represented months of hard work and determination, because they do not just want to win in Nashville. They want to be the best in the world.

The four-person team of sophomores is part of Happy Valley High School’s Vex Robotics program, bringing engineering, computer programming, geometry and more to center stage.

Coach Kyle Hunt said he merely helps give them ideas and guides them towards competition day. The rest comes from the team itself.

Zach Stephens, the coder of the group, said once you get the hang of it, programming something like a robot can be either simple or complex, depending on what you want it to do.

“You can make a robot drive forward easily,” Stephens said. “To make it autonomous, make the turns more smooth, it can take multiple days fine-tuning it.”

The state competition is not until March, but the quartet spends every first period of the school day rushing to their workspace and pulling out the laptop and everything they need. This passion has been with each of them for years; they competed on the same team when they were in Happy Valley Middle School.

The robot itself has one main goal: stack 10 to 12 blocks into vertical stacks. The more stacks it can make earns the team more points, and the first 15 seconds of the competition can use automation to speed up the process, so if the group can make it work, which they can and already have, it gives them a massive advantage on game day.

Designer Jackson Taylor said he loved building things ever since he was a kid.

“I was a kid who liked to put stuff together,” Taylor said.

For projects like this, he said it is not enough to simply draw the plans and put it together once.

“If you just put something together, it will not work,” he said.

If he notices the robot wobbling as it picks up blocks, he relays what he sees to his teammates, particularly Stephens, to figure out what needs to change. The materials to build the robot itself come from Vex, who lets them purchase parts off a catalogue so everything is uniform in design.

Engineer Clara Smith, who also helps keep track of the log books for each session so they can keep track of their progress, said the program was a great way for her to get into STEM.

“I want to pursue an engineering degree,” Smith said. “Now, I am a little ahead. We use all of that on a daily basis.”

Ryan Eggers, another engineer, said placing in state means they can go to the Worlds Competition, which will see them compete with teams from places like China and Thailand.

“We are doing pretty well right now, but we need financial support,” Eggers said.

The team has to spend money obtaining the parts they need in designing the robot, which means they run on a shoestring budget in order to get things done.

The competition itself runs March 7 and 8 in Brentwood, Tenn. Worlds will take place from April 22 to 25 in Louisville, Ky.

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