From containers of gears and motors, metal plates and screws, sensors and controllers, spring the creations that sometimes elate, other times frustrate, but always challenge the minds of the Oak Park and River Forest High School students who join VEX Robotics.
For one group of five juniors, their teamwork and perseverance took them all the way to the ultimate robotics competition on the planet: the VEX Robotics World Championship, in Louisville, Kentucky, where 563 high school teams from six continents competed in April.
“It’s nice to see teams from around the world,” said Tyler Yokoo, of OPRF’s team, Dreadnought. “And it’s interesting to compete with others who’ve advanced to this level and for us to stand on the same ground.”
With 29 countries and every state from the U.S. competing, it truly is an international experience with one team from Bahrain (and their dozen-strong fan club engaging in rhythmic clapping and drumming) to the Brits in their Union Jack capes and tall blue-velvet top hats.
But what really matter are the robots. Every year, VEX announces a new game. Each team is challenged to create a robot that can score the most points — along with one alliance team — against their opponents in an arena within a set amount of time. Both “programmed-autonomous” and driver-controlled time are involved.
The Dreadnought team formed last school year when VEX Robotics was first offered at OPRF. Yokoo, along with David Snyder, George Dickerson, Adam Potter, and Miles Kosik, all contribute to the design phase, which starts in the fall. Then each member lends his expertise with building, programming and other tasks.
“We share ideas — what could be good, what is not good,” said Dickerson, who is also the robot’s driver. “We draw on the board and see what will be best.”
Their first design qualified them for state at a Regional VEX tournament in November. They came in first in the Skills Challenge, where the robot performs solo, without an alliance or competitors.
But qualifying for state wasn’t enough; the team wanted to go to the next level.
“Our first robot is the opposite of what we have now.” Dickerson said. “It wasn’t as competitive and couldn’t be any better. So we switched our design to something with more potential.”
They went on to place first, along with their alliance teams, in another regional competition in January. Up next was the Illinois State Championship in March. By the time Worlds rolled around, their robot had four different designs. This flexibility earned them recognition at state, the Amaze Award, which is for “the team who never settles for good enough and keeps working at rebuilding and improving their robot.” This was the second year Dreadnought received this honor at the VEX State Championship.
They also ranked second in Skills, which qualified the team for Worlds.
“We had fantasies of going to Worlds our first year and it was a stretch goal this year,” said Snyder. “It took hard work, dedication, and determination.”
Also getting them to Worlds and carrying them through is their team dynamic.
“There’s no team captain, or one or two dominant people, like other teams,” said Potter. “Everyone gets input and we respect each other’s opinions.”
Competing in nine qualifying matches during three days with the best in the world has its difficulties. Although some matches went well, during one match early on the second day, Dreadnought’s robot fell to its side, became stuck, and when it was finally upright, could not score. Disappointment displayed on all their faces, the team nonetheless gathered, marching back to their pit as one, robot in tow, neon orange shirts with Huskies on their backs, not just showing their school spirit, but team spirit as well.
“Our team deals with issues really well.” Dickerson added. “Each person will fix their part, and understand something went wrong with the robot and not blame anyone. That’s why they’re such a great team.”
With the 2017-18 VEX game announced at the end of Worlds, team Dreadnought already has plans to get to work.
“We have nowhere to go but up,” Potter said.
And like an unsinkable ship, Dreadnought forges on.