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Robotics Inspires Students to Aim High at SSIS

Spring 2018, Louisville Kentucky: Vietnam’s bright red flag fluttered as it paraded past applauding fans in Freedom Hall, the historic arena where Mohammed Ali fought his first professional bout.

The attendees were not there to cheer for their favorite basketball team, band or singer, as it might have appeared; instead, they were there to watch robots compete in a fast-paced game of wit and skill. The students from Saigon South International School (SSIS) carrying the flag were representing Vietnam for the first time ever at a VEX Robotics World Championship. While they didn’t advance to the final rounds that weekend, they walked away with the prestigious Inspire Award, which is given to the team that best embodies the spirit and values of the competition.

VEX Robotics tasks high school and middle school students with designing and programming robots using a core kit of basic machine parts. Teams from around the world compete at events in a game where the rules change every year. The game’s current iteration requires the robots navigate a course both autonomously and while controlled remotely, picking up plastic cones and lifting them onto poles along the way. Competitions can get especially tense when the clock starts ticking down and the scores remain close.

Robotics events don’t just offer thrilling competition, they also help people develop a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. Students with an interest in sports, drama or music at SSIS have long had clear outlets to explore their hobbies. The same opportunities were less prominant for those curious about engineering, explains Evan Weinberg, an SSIS math teacher and faculty leader for the Robotics Club. The club gives those students a chance to experience real engineering work in a welcoming social setting.

VEX is merely one example of the Robotics Club’s many activities that aim to instill in students knowledge and passion for engineering and critical thinking. The school’s administration was eager to establish it last year so students could have hands-on experience with the type of solution-based exploration they will encounter in the real-world. Rather than being given a question with a singular correct answer, robotics underscores the reality that most problems have numerous solutions. Such a mindset is critical for work at top companies and entrepreneurship as well as the daily tasks, hobbies and interests that lie ahead.

Weinberg explains to Saigoneer that the Robotics Club doesn’t function as a mere extension of regular coursework. Students certainly use some information they learn in class, but it also stands apart as an independent way for students to learn about STEM. As technology and innovation become more central to people's personal and professional lives, being familiar with planning and revision concepts, teamwork and basic information adoption prepares them for future careers across a variety of fields. The club’s purposes, therefore, align with SSIS’s greater goal of producing graduates with the skills to lead in solving the world’s problems.

Getting to the VEX World Championships wasn’t easy for the SSIS crew. Many of the other teams have been around for years, with strong traditions and mentorship systems in place. SSIS, on the other hand, only received their first robotics kits in the fall and decided to accept the tournament invitation mere weeks before it was scheduled to start. And while Weinberg led robotics teams in America and China in the past, he had never done so with VEX equipment. Some of the students had never even used a screwdriver, and they were all new to the rigorous demands of designing, testing, prototyping and refining their robots. Overcoming these challenges and making it to the tournament after only one preparatory competition in Bangkok was a major achievement in itself.

Setbacks are not only expected, but embraced as a valuable part of robotics. Engineering inherently involves learning by making mistakes. When their VEX robot slammed a cone over its shoulder instead of gingerly placing it atop the pole, or necessary parts were left behind in their rooms, the students knew not to see it as a failure, but an experience to learn from: the touch would be calibrated on the next robot; an inventory checklist would be created before leaving for future events. Weinberg lets the students make these mistakes and find solutions for themselves, only offering help on complex engineering concepts because he knows having them do all the design work maximizes learning potential.

Another important aspect of the VEX competition involved the interactions within and among teams. Deciding how and what to build required extensive collaboration and communication amongst team members. Similarly, at the World Championship, other schools were eager to help the SSIS students, sharing their design innovations and providing guidance. Friendships were formed, knowledge imparted and an awareness gained of the unique, altruistic environment that exists in the international robotics community. Within the club, members have significant opportunities to practice teamwork, leadership and communication skills.

Weinberg is conservative when discussing the Robotics Clubs’ upcoming plans. The VEX World Championship required a great amount of time and resources and students may choose to take a year off from that competition to grow the Robotics Club. Whether they attend VEX tournaments next year or not, they are certainly preparing for the future and exploring new ways to engage with robotics and engineering. Many are already inspiring younger students to join the club and build on their accomplishments.

The Inspire Award rests on a shelf in Weinberg’s classroom that overlooks robot parts and a mock competition field. It serves as a visual representation of what the Robotics Club has accomplished. Their building and competing at the global level with a VEX robot not only taught them about real-world engineering, but gave them important lessons regarding teamwork, leadership, perseverance, community and independence.

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