Students show off robotics skills in Nor’easter VEX tournament

Members of the North Syracuse Middle School VEX robotics team compete on Saturday during the SUNY Oswego Nor’Easter tournament.

OSWEGO — More than a dozen teams of middle school students stormed the Port City Saturday armed with their wits, preparation and self-built robots for the SUNY Oswego Nor’Easter VEX tournament.

Part of the international VEX Robotics competition, squads of teens in VEX tournaments compete against each other and the clock to accomplish a tactical goal.

Each match Saturday lasted a mere 60 seconds: two teams would be assigned to work together to score points with its remote-controlled robot inside a rectangular playing field. Points were scored by using the robot to place a small ball inside a cube, dragging the cube to a designated place, or stacking the cubes on top of a platform.

On Saturday, teams competed through qualifying rounds of matches, then a final round where the highest score would determine the champion. To make it through these rounds, teams had to work together to score as many points as possible.

Dan Tryon, a SUNY Oswego professor who helps organize the event and coach Oswego’s Freezing Code VEX team, explained.

“What’s cool about VEX is it’s the same field, the same game, the same elements being played by middle school teams everywhere in the world,” Tryon said.

The teamwork challenge tournament champions were the Chittenango RoboBears and RoboSquad from Syracuse Academy of Science. The excellence award, which Tryon said is the highest award given out at tournaments, went to the Devils of Cato-Meridian Middle School.

These three teams, as well as several others, qualified for the New York State Championship. The winners of the state tournament will qualify for the world championship in Louisville, Kentucky.

Oswego’s Dr. Mark Humphrey, who has been involved with VEX tournaments since 2013 when his son, Adam, took an interest, said the tournaments help kids learn teamwork and problem solving.

“It’s the way of the future, working with remotes,” Humphrey said. “These are things you use in daily life anyway. Technology and making something control something else. And making it three-dimensional, it’s fun to do Fortnite stuff and programming but when you see it actually three-dimensional and working in the real world, I think it just steps it up.”

The contestants agree with Humphrey’s assessment. Olivia Vitale, a sixth-grader from Cato-Meridian Middle School, said the tournaments have helped her learn to work together with her teammates, which she believes will serve her well in later life. Vitale wants to work with a sheriff’s department when she grows up.

“What I like about it is you get to (use) teamwork and you work with the other group to try and get points,” Vitale said. “Even though we’re not up there (controlling the robot), we have to talk and practice for when we’re on the field.”

Vitale’s teammates Rocket Craig, a seventh-grader and Devin Pollack, a sixth-grader, cited programming, building, problem solving and teamwork as skills that they learn through the tournaments.

Humphrey said the tournaments also help to inspire kids to become interested in STEM fields. Only around five percent of students who declare a college major in a STEM field will go on to gain employment in that field, according to Humphrey, who added that many STEM majors go into business, counseling or teaching.

Energy giant National Grid helped sponsor the event, which took place on the third floor of Park Hall on the SUNY Oswego campus. The company’s Gwen Sanders said by investing in events like VEX tournaments, the company is, in turn, investing in its own future workforce.

“Robotics is the hottest thing that’s happening because robotics is the future for almost any industry,” Sanders said. “And the students are the future, so why not invest in the students that are going to one day, hopefully, have an interest in robotics?”

SUNY Oswego director of corporate and foundation relations Jennifer Hill said it’s important to introduce math and science to students at a younger age to inspire an interest, and to make sure that students of all backgrounds are given opportunities within STEM.

“Especially for young women, people of color, we know that if we can get them into STEM programs earlier on they are more likely to choose STEM, robotics, science, technology, math, later on,” Hill said. “For years, it wasn’t introduced until high school. What that meant was, for years only boys were introduced to math and science in the earlier years, so in high school that’s all you had.”

In years past, Hill said, the only options for extracurricular activities were related to sports or the arts, and there was a lack of intellectual pursuits within after-school activity. She said activities and events like VEX tournaments give students who don’t feel they fit into either of those categories a much-needed outlet.

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