VEX Robotics team prepares for regional competition

By Martha Marteney - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Wed., Mar. 16, 2011
Members of the South Windsor High School VEX Robotics team - Rahul, John and Evan - move the crossbar on the robot to improve the inverse conveyor arm mechanism. Photos by Martha Marteney.
Members of the South Windsor High School VEX Robotics team - Rahul, John and Evan - move the crossbar on the robot to improve the inverse conveyor arm mechanism. Photos by Martha Marteney.

South Windsor High School is in the unique position of having two robotics teams. Norman Smith teaches robotics in the applied technology department and is the VEX Robotics team advisor. For many SWHS students, their first experience with robots is with the VEX Robotics team. VEX is the name of the robotics design system and parts used in the assembly of the robots.

SWHS also has a “For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” robotics team. In 2010, this team won the FIRST national competition for the second year in a row. The FIRST team manufactures its robots.

Smith has been the VEX robotics team advisor for seven years. “VEX is a better opportunity for high schools because it is less expensive than FIRST,” said Smith. While the VEX team can work together after school, the FIRST team must meet in the evening so that engineers can work with the students.

Each year, the VEX competition involves a new set of tasks for which the robots must be designed. This year’s competition is a “roundup,” which requires the robots to collect and stack color-coded rings on posts and to climb ladders. Points are awarded based on tasks accomplished, as well as the difficulty of those takes, such as the student “driver” directing the robot to place the rings on the posts positioned at varying heights or at different locations on the playing field.

“I think it’s just a really fun application of math, science and engineering,” said VEX team captain TJ Watson, a SWHS senior who is also on the FIRST team. He started with robotics while attending the Two Rivers Middle Magnet School and participating on the LEGO robotics team.

SWHS hosted a VEX scrimmage in October 2010, at which eight teams competed. The team also participated in a competition held at Manchester High School in February. The final regional event will be held at Central Connecticut State University on April 3. “The event is open to the public,” said Smith, “and we love to have people come.”

“This is a lot more complicated than what we do in class,” noted SWHS freshman John. After the last competition, the team recognized that it needed to improve on the ability of the robot’s inverse conveying arm to pick up the rings. The robots typically are works-in-progress, with improvements continually encouraged to better complete the competition objectives.

In addition to configuring the structure of the robot to perform the competition tasks, students develop the program for the autonomous skills challenge, in which the robots perform the tasks as pre-programmed movements, rather than with the direction from a human driver.

The members of the VEX team know that their robot has a certain set of abilities, but may be lacking in other skills. At the competition, the team joins together with a second, unrelated team. It is important for the SWHS VEX team members to be able to identify what their team skills are, as well as the skills that are lacking. They then scout the other teams and try to build alliances. This incorporates another level of strategy into the competition.

There are a multitude of opportunities for involvement on the robotics team. Some students work on computer programming, while others fabricate the metal structure of the robot. “I got involved because it sounded fun,” said Tim, a freshman who is working on the team’s website. Although he does not work directly with the robot, he said, “We input ideas, but they put them in place.” The VEX robotics team has a healthy spirit of competition and strong sense of camaraderie.

For more information about the VEX robotics team, visit the South Windsor High School website and select the "VEX Robotics Team Site" link. For more information about VEX robotics and the upcoming event at CCSU in New Britain on April 3, visit the website

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