Robotics contests provide STEM 'gateway', says SUNY Oswego educator, coach

Dan Tryon, a SUNY Oswego technology education faculty member, said the robotics team he helped form with another parent last fall did not dream of making it to the VEX Robotics World championships in April.

Student robotics team working with robotRecognizing the fast-growing robotics challenges as a “gateway” to drawing secondary-school students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Tryon and Dr. Mark Humphrey last October put together Freezing Code, a team of eighth- to 10th-graders, with long-term academic goals in mind.

Now this first-year team of middle and high school students—six from the Oswego City School District and one home-schooled—will participate April 23 to 26 in the world championship in April in Anaheim, thanks to their win at the state VEX Robotics tournament on Jan. 25.

“When we first started, we were feeling we had some pretty lofty goals,” said Tryon. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow qualify for the New York state championships?’”

Tryon and Humphrey used to take their children to Mexico’s Lego Robotics Club to participate in and learn what Tryon calls “a very powerful gateway technology.” They talked often about the lack of a team in Oswego.

“Sometimes you have to do it yourself and get it rolling downhill,” Tryon said.

Once the team was formed, Tryon recruited SUNY Oswego senior technology major Justin Montois to coach. They helped organize SUNY Oswego’s “VEX Robotics Nor’easter” competition in October, then led the team to a win at regionals in Syracuse in January. Freezing Code partnered with Granville High School’s Six Sigma team last month to beat 34 other teams at the state championship at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena, earning an invitation the world championship.

Global growth

Growing globally by leaps and bounds, the high school division of the VEX Robotics annual challenge—this year called “Toss Up”—attracts eighth- through 10th-graders interested in design, mechanics, electrical engineering, mathematics and programming.

“Participation in robot clubs and organized robot challenges appeals to almost as many girls as boys, and their involvement in robotics is crucial for STEM programs initiated all around the country,” Tryon said.

Now the team—Tryon’s daughter, Lydia, and son, Jordan; Humphrey’s son, Adam; Michael Beckwith Jr., Jordan Runner, Jeremy Braiman and Evan James—and the Granville team have qualified to join up to 400 invited teams from 27 countries, among the 8,000 VEX Robotics squads in the world, to compete for the top prize.

Another VEX Robotics team already has formed at Oswego High School, under technology teacher Matt Bock. “I’d like to see every school in the county with a team,” Tryon said. “We’d help them get organized.”

Even without the travel, forming a team can cost thousands of dollars for robot parts, a practice field, registration fees and so on. Freezing Code has had considerable help: Mark Hardy, chair of SUNY Oswego’s technology department, supports the team and approved use of the new manufacturing systems lab for an average of seven hours a week in robot design, construction and practice; and Chuck Spector, professor in the School of Business, and Team Mini, designers and operators of the mini-Zamboni at Laker ice hockey games, also have supported the team.

But Tryon acknowledges the team will need to do more promotion and solicit more donations in order to make the trip. The team has scheduled television appearances and started a newsletter, among other outreach

‘A real spectacle’

VEX Robotics challenges take place on a 12-by-12-foot platform where each team’s custom-built robot must maneuver large balls and smaller, 6-inch balls; on the final challenge, the robot must lift a large ball over a 40-inch-high bar and hang itself at least 18 inches off the floor. The robots must work autonomously for 15 seconds to accomplish as many tasks as possible then for nearly two minutes under remote control. A unique feature of the competition is a blind draw for a partner team in the preliminary rounds, followed by the top teams’ choices of partner for the playoffs. It can take up to seven hours in all to declare the winners, Tryon said.

The excitement around the competitions has not obscured the long-term goal. “I hope that this fairytale story continues for a few more months,” Tryon wrote in Freezing Code’s 2013 newsletter. “The seeds that we are planting now will bear important fruit.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Tinkering for the win—Members of the Freezing Code team adjust their custom robot between rounds Jan. 25 at the VEX Robotics State Championships at SRC Arena on the Onondaga Community College campus. Coached by SUNY Oswego technology faculty member Dan Tryon and senior technology education major Justin Montois, the team partnered with Six Sigma of Granville High School to win and qualify for the world championship in April in Anaheim. From left are Jordan Runner, Evan James and Jordan Tryon, all ninth-graders; Lydia Tryon, 10th grade; and Michael Beckwith Jr., ninth grade. Two other team members are Jeremy Braiman and Adam Humphrey. (Photo by Steven Tryon)

(Posted: Feb 13, 2014)

Tags: technology education, technology, stem, robotics, education pipeline