Three teams representing the Saugerties High School robotics program traveled to Connecticut last weekend for the Vex Robotics Competition at Weston High School, a 63-team tournament where students from different schools may find themselves battling another team in one round and joining forces with them in the next.
“This isn’t a participation event,” said Bryan Van Vliet, a Saugerties technology teacher who’s the robotics program’s faculty adviser. “You need to be in the top 16 to move on, and the way Vex works, you constantly are rotating partners. So you could be against a team in your first competition and then be partnered with them the second time through. You can’t be hostile because they’re going to be your foe in one opportunity and then your friend in the next.”
Of the three Saugerties teams in the Vex tournament, Carter’s Crew fared best, placing 27th overall after going 3-2 in competition. Another team from SHS, the Cronies, finished 46th after going 2-3, while the Pirates finished 62nd after posting an 0-5 record.
The immense resolve the teams showed began with getting up extremely early on a Saturday morning to take a school bus to Connecticut. “They were all at school at 4:45 in the morning,” said Van Vliet. “I don’t think any of us have ever seen that hour in the classroom before, and they were all in there packing stuff up, getting ready to go. So that was definitely exciting.”
“We made the best of it”
Before the competition began, members of the SHS robotics team met members of the competition.
It was determined upon check-in that the Saugerties robots as assembled didn’t qualify for the tournament. “We were a little underprepared as far as like our exact components went,” explained Carter Vail, captain of Carter’s Crew. “We really just didn’t have enough motor strength with the motors we had and the pieces we could use on them. So it was kind of an uphill battle, but we worked together with the random other teams. And even though the competition was steep, I think we made the best of it and really had a great experience.”
The Vex Robotics Competition opens with round-robin matches until 16 teams remain. In the earlier rounds, teams were paired with other teams, with each using their robots to compete against others. At Vex, the robots stack six-inch cubes which weigh 200 grams. The goal is to build a tower within a specified safe zone. With the teams drawing cubes from the same pile, the competition can get very fierce.
While the competition unfolds in real time, a significant amount of pre-match work goes into the design and construction of a robot. But some decisions are made on the fly during the competition.
Jeremy Cornelison, a senior at Saugerties High, was captain of the Cronies. “I personally like the problem-solving aspect of it, and just having a conversation with my team,” he said, “what’s good to do when stuff goes wrong and just figuring everything out.”
“We really needed to give it 110 percent”
Despite having to rebuild on the fly upon arriving at Weston High, and even then sometimes having less up-to-date equipment than many of their opponents, the students in the Saugerties robotics program did well under difficult circumstances. “I think it really united us and strengthened us,” said Cornelison. “We really needed to give it 110 percent even just to contend with everybody else there.”
According to Van Vliet, the Saugerties contingent of 18 students might not have made it to the Vex Robotics Competition at all. A very generous $7500 donation by Sawyer Motors helped keep the program afloat. For the five senior boys who participated, this was their first time at Vex since the eighth grade.
To keep the program going beyond this year, Van Vliet deliberately included underclassmen on each of the three Saugerties teams. “We just never had the funding to get back [to Vex] until this year,” Van Vliet said. “So when the funding came through, I told them that they could have their own teams with the stipulation that they had to pick some underclassmen so that we would have a program in the future. So they split themselves up evenly they picked juniors, sophomores and freshmen that they felt might work well with them. And then I picked two eighth-grade students that they felt they could work with as well to kind of understand how things go.”
Mixing it up meant taking advantage of the different strengths of different students.
“Two of my close friends on the team pretty much built the whole thing,” said Vail, who prefers the coding aspect of robotics. “And then I went back through and made sure all the loaders were coded properly so that we could run smoothly and all the buttons were laid out the way we needed them to. But definitely everyone brings something different to the table when you’re making a team.”
Underwater competiton comes next
Next up for the SHS robotics program is the Greater New York Regional SeaPerch Challenge, a qualifying tournament in Garden City on Saturday, March 28. Though SeaPerch is an underwater robotics competition, the design is less complex and therefore less expensive. More students from the school can participate.
“It’ll be a much more simplistic version of what we had to build [for Vex],” said Cornelison. “Everything is just made out of PVC and he has three motors.”
Van Vliet came away from the Vex competition extremely impressed with how his students handled adversity, a good sign not only for that day’s matches but also the future of the robotics program at Saugerties High.
“We had just driven two hours and were told that the robots weren’t gonna work,” he said. “Now a lot of people would sit there and decided to pack up and go home. Our kids went around to other teams and they were able to borrow pieces to get compliant.
“And I’ve got to say the competition’s wonderful because schools really do look out for each other. So a couple of our freshmen started asking people and the next thing you know they had the right battery part. I mean, but a lot of people would’ve just sat there and said, ‘Oh, it’s not compliant, let’s go home.’ These kids sit there and say, ‘What do I need to do to make it compliant? Let’s make it happen.’”