On April 29, five Garden City students will travel to Louisville, Kentucky, to compete at the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championship, a robotics competition where the students will go head to head with 397 teams from around the country and world.

The five sixth-graders, who are among 22 students participating in Jennie Barker Elementary School’s robotics enrichment class, are energized about the opportunity.

The class, a hands-on engineering activity led by teacher Matthew Horney, is entering its second year of instruction and first year of competition. The class is teaching fifth- and sixth-graders a host of technical and mechanical skills.

“(I’m) just trying to get them interested in their future careers that they could get into. The more the younger ages are exposed to more of the technical stuff, the more they see things they might want to pursue when they get older,” Horney said.

Horney said the class began with a call to action. Several years ago, Garden City USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin challenged teachers to be innovative in the classroom. Working with administrator Karen Murrell, Horney reached out to Garden City High School robotics instructor Yuriy Drudinskiy to talk about his processes and programs. With the help of four of Drudinskiy’s VEX IQ engineering kits and two more Horney bought with a grant, the students began learning about engineering and how to build their own robots.

Sixth-grader Mariah Standley leads the team that will travel to Louisville at the end of the month. To her, robotics is a collision of everything else she learns at school.

“Usually in math and social studies you just use those things, but in this you pretty much have to use all of it. You use math (for measurements) and you also use writing. We have to fill out an engineering notebook ... that (we) turn into the judges at the end of every competition,” she said.

“It’s very different,” she said. “It’s like art, kind of … Since we can build our own design, we can build any way we want.”

Horney said that in the beginning, the class was more instructor led, but he also lets students explore the material on their own. The class is currently broken into fifth- and sixth-grade groups, with fifth-graders learning the fundamentals and sixth-graders moving on to more advanced lessons.

Over their two years, today’s sixth-graders have soldered and welded a rover, programmed robots to run on AI, built robots from schematics and from scratch and adjusted their projects to fit certain scenarios.

Sixth-grader Henry Bors talked in detail about how he learned about gear ratios and overcoming challenges with the robots, adding onto established schematics to best suit their conditions.

“It helps tremendously with organization,” Horney said. “It helps with cognition so they can reflect on what they’ve done and what they can do to improve it … You’ve got the problem solving going on, as well. There’s so many aspects that this helps them out with.”

Earlier this year, Horney asked the students to submit applications and sit through interviews to see who could and would compete at a statewide competition at Wichita State University. Maria, Henry, Joseph Caballero, Clayton Wampler and Pablo Aguilar were selected, competing in and earning trophies in three of the competition’s five events: Programming Skills Champion, Robot Skills Champion and Teamwork Champion awards. They were the only school to win more than one event, and when they realized that, they celebrated.

But the really exciting moment was sharing their accomplishments with their classmates. Mariah said when she told another girl in the group they had won, her classmate was excited and happy for her.

Horney said when they brought the trophies home, the enthusiasm from all the kids was palpable.

“Everybody got a lot more invested into it,” he said. “Now, when you step into the room, you don’t really see that many kids off task … Everybody has their different jobs that they’re doing, and just their whole level of engagement has gone up.”

In a few weeks, the five students will face off with 397 teams from Nebraska, California, New York, South Korea, Japan and many other countries. Mariah isn’t sure if they’ll win, but she’s excited for the experience and the chance to learn more about robotics.

As the students stay after school to finish their robots, Horney is glad to see they care so much about a school activity.

“It started out as an enrichment class,” he said. “It’s a little bit more than that.”


Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.