Robotics team 8995E steers to victory with their robotics boot camp

February 15, 2021


Ashley Xie

8995E teaches Zoom classes about designing, programming, and engineering for middle schoolers.

As hope for a normal season faded, the Metea robotics team 8995E got their gears turning to find another way to victory. The freshman team, which includes Ian Corkey, Sheel Parikh, Vikram Rao, Debarya Saha, Arnav Sharma, and Kaushik Vemulapalli, created a four-week robotics boot camp to help District 204 middle schoolers gain experience and robotics to make their school teams. The team embraced their awkwardness and developed an amazing team dynamic that they hope to continue for the next four years.

The Unite Online Challenge sponsored by Google

Team 8995E won the Unite Online Challenge sponsored by Google. The prompt was to demonstrate why robotics should be inclusive and not exclusive. The freshmen team decided to run a boot camp in Jan. and this month to teach middle schoolers about robotics. Robotics in District 204 can be very exclusive, and the team was aware of this issue while going into their brainstorming. 

“Sometimes the same kids are getting picked every year, and some kids that are really interested in robotics never really get a chance to get involved in it,” Rao said. “We wanted to change that. We made this camp so that kids that have never been exposed to robotics or want more knowledge about it, they can get that. They’ll have a better chance of getting into their school teams or anything else related to robotics, they’ll have a good foundation.”

Their boot camp had three classes: designing, programming, and engineering. With over 100 students, they established a rotation cycle so every student can take all three classes. In the designing class, students worked in Tinkercad, a 3D modeling program, to create characters, rooms, and eventually robots. In the programming class, they worked in Vex VR, a programming simulator, to code a robot through a maze. In the engineering class, participants built paper bridges, working from the brainstorming phase to completion. 

These classes helped prepare students for designing, programming, and building robots for Vex competitions. Deepak Peddinti, a seventh-grader at Granger Middle School, feels more prepared for the season after learning about complex skills. He was on his school’s robotics team in sixth grade, but he did not feel like he was getting all the experience he wanted there.

“Before this boot camp, in sixth grade, we did do a lot of stuff in middle school robotics, but in my group, the eighth graders really did most of the stuff because they knew a lot,” Peddinit said. “Now that I know a lot, I feel like if I do get in, I can contribute a lot more to my team.”

Honestly, it was really amazing to see how a lot of the hard work paid off.

— Arnav Sharma

August McNichol, a sixth-grader at Hill Middle School never knew what a robotics team looked like. He did not know what skills were needed, but the boot camp has taught him.

“It showed me a lot of the things you need to do, like certain programming languages, certain materials for the robots, and just what to be ready for in the robotics challenges,” McNichol said.

The team hopes to continue this boot camp in years to come. They want to provide more skill levels for their classes to provide more opportunities for learning. They also want to expand their geographical reach of students.

“In the future, we’re planning to expand our classes beyond the standard building, designing, and programming,” Parikh said. “Our goal is to make more advanced classes. They won’t only be for District 204. We want to branch out to other areas where everyone can join. You don’t have to be part of District 204, or even in Illinois. Our goal is to make anyone able to join.

McNichol was excited to hear that 8995E won the Unite Online Challenge. Beyond what he learned, he was glad that their hard work was being rewarded.

“I felt really happy that they won, especially because they are helping lots of kids and are getting rewarded,” McNichol said. “They have been teaching us all for free and trying to make sure that everyone has a good chance.”

Sharma, a member of the freshman team, was also very excited. Winning the Unite Online Challenge invites 8995E to Vex Worlds 2021 in April, and they can bring one other Metea robotics team with them. They are the first freshman team at Metea to qualify for the international competition. 

“Honestly, it was really amazing to see how a lot of the hard work paid off,” Sharma said. “Finding out was a really big adrenaline rush that just came through, and once I got over that, it dawned upon me of what we actually did because going to the international level is not the easiest task in the world.”

Romeo specifically was proud. He is always there for the teams when they need help, and they never fail to blow him away with their achievements. 

“I just could not be more proud,” Romeo said. “That sums it up. I could not be more impressed or more proud, and every year, the kids on the robotics team make me look really good because I very much put it in their hands to say, ‘you make what you want of this club, I’m going to be here to help you, I’m going to be your mentor, but if you want to put in the hours, you can do something awesome.’”

Building a team dynamic

The hardest part of being on a new team is the beginning. It is a whole new group of people, and teams have to work fast to build their dynamic and function well together. Metea Robotics Coach Anthony Romeo sees this development with every new team. 8995E was no exception.

“They’re definitely freshmen in every aspect of the word,” Romeo said. “They’re extremely awkward. Talking to me they’re awkward, talking to each other they’re awkward, so it’s kind of funny to see at the beginning of the year, that incredible awkwardness.”

Before working on the Unite Online Challenge, 8995E tackled another project: “Thinking Outside The Box” Photography Challenge. For this challenge, the team had to take photos of things that reminded them of STEM. This competition, like the Unite Online Challenge, was global. After submitting their response, they had high hopes of success.

“We thought we were going to win since our photos were pretty good,” Saha said. “But we didn’t, and then we’re like, ‘okay, then we can do another challenge.’”

The photography challenge was the first project the freshmen did as a team. It helped them get the jitters out and start learning how to mesh together and work best. 

“One of the things that the photography challenge taught us was working as a team,” Parikh said. “I didn’t know anyone else, but the photography challenge was a really great way for all of us to start interacting with each other. I think it was a really great stepping stone into working on a large project.”

The photography challenge gave the team a trial run of working together. In addition, they also met outside of the normal robotics meetings to hang out as a team. They met over Discord or Zoom to play games, watch movies, and get to know each other. This helped them combat the awkwardness of a new team and jump right into being friends.

“My favorite memory would be our movie night,” Parikh said. “That was the first time we were all talking about school, our teachers, our classes, stuff we’re doing. That’s the first time we got out of our comfort zone. We started to get to know each other a little more.”

It seems like a small step, but those small plans helped the team greatly. 

“Now when you see them in a meeting, they talk to each other, they interject, they have no problem saying ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ whereas before, they were very timid, kind of afraid to even mention an idea, so it’s really cool to see that all that stuff they did outside of the meetings really paid off,” Romeo said. “Every positive thing you should do in an e-learning environment or where you can’t really work together, they managed to make it work. They really focused on building that relationship, and it was really nice.”

Low expectations

Last summer, the robotics coaches announced that there would not be a robotics season. It was difficult to have students in-person to build while still following CDC guidelines. As the year grew closer and robotics applications were open for submission, the plans for the season changed.

A normal robotics season includes designing, building, and programming a robot for a certain game. The game for the Vex competition changes every year. Teams compete in a bracket system to advance to the finals and qualify for Vex Worlds. Teams can also qualify with other awards, like the Design Award which needs a fantastic notebook that teams use to track their progress throughout the season. 

This year, instead of building robots to compete in Vex competitions that would occur during a regular season, the teams would complete online challenges. These online challenges are run by either the Robotics Education Competition Foundation (REC) or companies like Google and Texas Instruments. Many members were not prepared for such a drastically different season, but it was better than nothing. 

I still believe the season we had this year excelled beyond my expectations. I love working with our team.

— Sheel Parikh

“I didn’t have that many expectations knowing that the robotics season was canceled starting from the summer,” Saha said. “I didn’t really expect that we would be able to build robots. Mostly all of 2020 was online, so I had very minimum expectations. I didn’t even know that there were online challenges that we could do. I thought it was going to be a pretty mundane season, but that soon changed.”

Even Romeo was concerned about how the season would go. Not only were students missing out on building robots, but they also had to deal with the new stresses of remote learning.

“This season, my expectations were honestly pretty low,” Romeo said. “I know students were struggling a lot to begin with, learning how to do e-learning. I know that a lot of kids, specifically for robotics, were really disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to build the robots.”

Despite the unusual season, 8995E made the best of what they had. 

“I was expecting for us to start building, but of course with COVID-19, we can’t build,” Parikh said. “That’s completely fine. I still believe the season we had this year excelled beyond my expectations. I love working with our team.”

Without the Vex competitions, the team was able to focus on working together and establishing their dynamic. 

“[My expectations] changed drastically while moving into the season,” Sharma said. “We all got to know each other a lot better. We all got to start working as a team a lot better, we were collaborating a lot better, and overall, we started clicking more and more.”

Unfortunately, many seniors decided to opt out of the season because they would not be able to build. The substitute team building and online challenges were not what they were looking forward to for their final season. However, this allowed the club to take more lowerclassmen. 

“All the seniors kind of dropped out and didn’t want to participate anymore because they weren’t going to be able to build a robot,” Romeo said. “So that really opened up the door where we had a lot of freshmen on the team this year, which was kind of nice because I think they were ambitious.”

The next four years

The best part of joining robotics as a freshman is getting to stick with the same team. As members rejoin the following year, the robotics coaches try to keep the teams together. 

“I think there is value in splitting teams up if they don’t get along, but unless they request it, I like to try to keep a group of kids together for all four years,” Romeo said.

Team 8995M, Mustang Voltage, was a team of six seniors who graduated in 2020. They were together from their freshman year to their senior year. Being a team for all four years helped them work efficiently together. 

“Even by junior year, 8995M, you could tell that these guys were just a well-oiled machine,” Romeo said. “They knew exactly what they needed to do, they could rely on each other for it. It was really cool to watch and see, compared to freshman year.”

By sticking together year after year, 8995M was able to grow as a team. 8995E agrees that they want to keep working as a team throughout their high school robotics careers. Without the intense stress of Vex competitions, Rao believes they were able to refine their skills and use their experiences to be better team members.

“Hopefully, next year we’ll get to build in person,” Rao said. “By that point, I feel like this boot camp and our experiences together will help us be able to bond and be really good at building robots when we already have that team connection.”

Sharma believes that their potential time together will help them grow closer together as friends. 

“I am looking forward to the fact that we’ll be able to be very comfortable with each other,” Sharma said. “We’ll know each other a lot better. We’ll be able to be more ourselves, and less of a refined version of ourselves as we are over Zoom and while we’re trying to get to know each other.”

This year is a once in a lifetime experience for almost every club. 8995E took this opportunity by the reins to make it the best season they could.

“This is a different experience and probably something we’ll never get again,” Rao said.

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