Gladstone Robo-battlers take Dallas

It's Monday morning and students in Todd Ablett's class at Gladstone Secondary are hard at work designing robots. What makes this particular Monday morning unique is that several of the students in the class have just returned from representing Canada at the VEX Robotics Competition World Championship's April 22-24 in Dallas, Texas where they tied for fifth in the world.

Ablett, who is Gladstone Tech Studies Department Head said: "After Dallas, the guys sulked a little, but today the culture of the classroom is to get back to work. I've heard the guys who were in Dallas say to each other 'I know what I'll do differently next time.'"

The students were already puzzling over next year's game Round Up which was just announced at the close of the Dallas championship.

Over 400 Elite VEX teams from secondary schools and universities in 14 countries competed at the Dallas Convention Center with the innovative robots they designed and built using the VEX Robotics Design System.

The Gladstone student teams were "721 TBA," including Alex Jew (team Captain), Frankey He,  Alex Mui, Les Mui and Connor Stewart-Hunter; and "2z Death From Above," including Kelvin Tam (team Captain), Nathan Lau, Jame Lee, Edward Leung, and Andy Loi,.

Both teams were placed in Science, the toughest division, and were unfortunately eliminated in the quarter finals. Teams played eight times in the round robin and 721 even finished with a 7-1-0 record.

This year's game, Clean Sweep, involved a 12-foot-by-12-foot square field where two alliances composed of two teams competed against one another. Each match consisted of a 20-second autonomous operation where robots are controlled by onboard software, followed by two minutes of human-operated play.

The robots are programmed to move quickly to place Nerf football and soccer balls over a 12-inch wall to earn points. Operators send signals to the robot wirelessly and the robot can send signals to the operator when there are problems.

"Once the kids got to the competition it is was up to them and their engineering talents to take on the world," said Ablett who accompanied the ten students to Dallas. He notes that most of the international teams travel with 30 to 40 people, including adults who in some teams help fix and tune the robots.

Ablett said competitors were kept busy throughout the day in matches, and in between bouts fixing and tuning their robots.

"Our students designed the robots and if there is a problem they have to fix them. They took full responsibility for everything during the event," said Ablett.

In order to qualify for the world championships the Gladstone teams took part in a series of five competitions over the past year in the USA and in B.C. For four students it was their third trip to the world championships. Several of the students are graduating this year and will study engineering at post secondary.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has its advantages, as Ablett points out, because his students get to play a lot of tournaments in the area.

Since the robotics program started at Gladstone Ablett has seen a lot more of his students choose engineering programs at university.  "The popularity of robotics at Gladstone has swayed some students to take tech ed classes. Robotics has made engineering cool."

The popularity of robotics is also due to the reward students feel in building something by hand and the supportive yet competitive culture of the classroom. "Robotics brings a lot of things into the classroom that is usually found in team sports including camaraderie, friendship and teamwork," said Ablett.

Robotics is a competition where physicality doesn't matter and for a lot of our students this is their success area, the place they can be competitive."

Although all of the students that went to Dallas were male this year, the female students in Ablett's classes have also done very well. Last year, an all female team with a cleverly designed robot with three conveyor belts called "Pink Sparkle Fairy Unicorn," went to the Dallas championships where they also placed fifth in the world the autonomous challenge. Ablett points out that many universities are eager for female students to enter the engineering field. One Gladstone graduate now attends SFU and was accepted into the innovative Mechatronics engineering program.

Another group that Ablett aims to interest in engineering is younger students. Ablett is planning some mini-competitions in the new school year to showcase robotics and tech ed to the Grade 8 students.

"Today's students are missing practical skills and they don't get an opportunity to work with their hands," said Ablett.  "Tech education fills this in and takes the fear out of technology. For a lot of people technology is like magic and they don't know how items like their cell phone work. My students understand the basics of micro processors from building their robots and it demystifies everyday technology.

There has also been talk of forming a Robotics alumni club to create a legacy for the Gladstone graduates.

Ablett is thankful for the generous support the students have had to fund their trips. "Our students don't have much time to fundraise but have had good support from the community including a generous donation of $1,500 from the Universal Buddhist Temple."

This year the school's PAC arranged for hockey jerseys with the team's name which Ablett said went far in building team recognition at the competition.







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