ASU hosts state robotics championship

The Sun Devils robotic club competed against other schools in the VEX robotic Arizona State championship.  They weren’t competing to win or lose but to take a look at how the robots work. (Photo by Ana Ramirez) The Sun Devils robotic club competed against other schools in the VEX robotic Arizona State championship. (Photo by Ana Ramirez)

Teams made up of middle school, high school and college students spent Friday and Saturday playing a unique sport, “Sack Attack,” during the first VEX Robotics Arizona state championship on the Tempe campus on Saturday.

Jason Morrella, president of the Robotics, Education and Competition Foundation, said the program tries to get kids involved in something other than sports and entertainment.

“It’s like a club or a football team to them,” he said.

The winners of the Arizona state championship will qualify to play against nearly 700 teams from around the globe in the world championship next month in Anaheim, Calif.

The game, which changes every year, is unveiled during the world championship. Morella said the REC Foundation comes up with a new sport to make sure the teams redesign their robots and figure out a different way to conquer the challenges.

“Sack Attack” is played on a square field where two alliances are formed. The blue and the red alliance are each composed of two teams that compete in matches of 15 seconds of autonomous play and 125 seconds of driver-controlled play. During the play-off brackets, the teams choose their own alliances.

“If they can get (the bean bags) into three different types of goals, they score points,” Morrella said. “They also get bonus points if their robot does well autonomously. … So the kids are not just learning mechanical engineering, they’re learning computer science (and) programming.”

There are more than 7,300 teams from every state in the U.S. and 23 different countries enrolled in the robotics program. Teachers and mentors serve only as project managers, Morrella said.

“The kids are the ones doing all the work,” he said. “The kids design and build the robots.”

The teams purchase the VEX Robotics Design System online and receive a kit with parts, but there are no instructions because teams are encouraged to design and build the robots however they wish.

“They have to engineer the solutions to what’s the best way to play the game,” he said. “That’s why you see so many different looking robots.”

Computer systems engineering freshmen Adam Lew and Sami Mian and biomedical engineering freshman Anna Essex are members of the Sun Devil Robotics club, which represented ASU in Saturday’s competition.

Lew said the team spent at least 20 hours each week working on the project since receiving a robot kit four weeks ago.

“Normally, we would meet twice a week for just an hour and a half … but we’ve been meeting for more than three hours every night and on weekends like six hours,” Essex said. “It’s a nice group of people, (and) I really like it.”

Lew said the team learned from the competition that sometimes simple is better and that there is always a margin for machine and driving errors.

“We make a lot of errors, so we have to do tweaks in between rounds,” he said. “Sometimes it works really well and sometimes really bad.”

Mian said the team has learned to work under pressure and on a time constraint. He teaches robotics camps at ASU for middle and high school students.

“(Robotics) introduces them to the concept of engineering, (and) it teaches them about failure in engineering and how that’s just as important,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing, and I think ASU is great for supporting all of this.”

Essex, who plans to be a member of the robotics club for her whole college career, said she was recruited by Mian while judging at the First Lego League. The robotics club is mostly student-directed, she added.

The club plans to come back to the championship in 2014. This year, only four college teams participated, which meant the championship was not a qualifier for college.

Computer science graduate student Eric Luster, who was this year’s director of student competitions for the Engineering Open House, said the greatest thing the teams learned at the competition is teamwork.

“The teams have to work together,” he said. “They have to raise money, do the programming together and work on the software and hardware together.”

Including the four college teams, 24 teams competed in the championship. The best two from middle school and the best two from high school will move on to the world championship.

Luster, who received the VEX Robotics volunteer of the year award Saturday, said the event will become a permanent fixture in during the open house.

“The (Engineering) Open House showcases all the engineering students and labs here at ASU,” he said. “It brings the researchers and the students out of the lab.”

Electrical engineering freshman Chris Nyarwaya was one of the competition’s judges. He and two other judges were in charge of overseeing the progress of six teams. They had to compare the designs to the robots and how they functioned during the matches to decide which teams get awards.

“These kids are amazing,” he said. “I wish I had that opportunity when I was growing up.”


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