Alice Xiong had a decision to make: nurse a headache or prepare her bot for battle.
That morning, the Grade 12 student was scheduled to meet her Burnsview Secondary cohorts at BCIT’s Burnaby campus to compete in the VEX Robotics Pacific Northwest regional championship. She didn’t want to go.
“But I’m like, this is my last competition,” explained the Grade 12 Burnsview Secondary student. “I’m going to go.”
Xiong made her way to the school the morning of Saturday, April 7 and met up with the other members of her robotics team. They would be competing in Division A with their robot, a handmade contraption designed to drive around a course and stack cones on various objects.
“We didn’t do that well,” Xiong said about the competition that morning, which required their robot to work together with two other teams’ robots to out-maneuver and out-stack the opposition.
“There was once or twice our teammate broke down, and a couple of times our battery was off,” Xiong said.
It wasn’t going any better for the other Burnsview Secondary team in Division B.
“Our robot was super under-prepared,” said Grade 12 team member William Chan. “We didn’t even take our laptops into the competition.”
But as the day progressed, both teams managed to turn the tide. The Division A team went home with Tournament Champion and Design trophies. The Division B team snagged General Excellence, Tournament Champion and Skills trophies.
“It was a happy ending,” Xiong said.
It was a true ending for her, as it was the final competition as part of the Burnsview robotics club she helped start three years earlier.
Burnsview Secondary welcomed its first robotics class in the 2014/2015 school year. Norman Ma, a teacher at the school, worked with an administrator to get funding for robotics equipment, and an eager Xiong joined the course.
“Mr. Ma mentioned there’s a competition going on on Saturday, and three of the class people went to check it out,” she remembered. “We just said, ‘Oh, if we were to make a robot, we would make something different,’ and we had a bunch of ideas and sketches.”
From there, the club was born.
Now, the club has more than eight members, although only seven show up regularly to build and compete.
Xiong and Grade 10 students Brendan Lightfoot, Maheep Behl and Aidan Teager make up 98549Y (the Division A team at the VEX championships in April). Chan and Grade 10 students Sahil Gupta and Logan Neilson-Anderson make up 98549A (the Division B team).
These are the most committed students “that really want to try out their designs against other schools, and see how their robots can compete,” said Ma, who spends two days a week mentoring and organizing the students as they build and code their own robots after school.
Lightfoot, who joined the club in Grade 9, remembers the class being quite small.
“I walked by one class, and I’d look in the room and my first through was, ‘That’s weird,’” he said. The other members of the robotics club — who were sitting in the downstairs classroom around him while he talked — laughed.
“The year later, I’m joining the class.” There was more laughter at that.
“I didn’t really know what it was,” Lightfoot said, in an attempt explain why he called the course weird. “In elementary school at that time, you don’t get anything like robotics. (…) The most tech thing you did was play on a laptop.”
“All the Right Type,” Behl added, referring to a learn-to-type game that’s been played in schools for over a decade.
“So I decided to join the class because all my friends were, and it seemed cool,” Lightfoot continued. “And it wasn’t a mistake.”
Building robots is a complicated endeavour, one that takes a number of different skills. Students in the robotics club must have the skills to actually build the robot using VEX Robotics-approved materials (an eligibility requirement for competitions), and also the ability to code.
Competitions feature both manually driven and autonomous modes, so the robot has to be able to be controlled using a video game-like joystick and also follow pre-programmed instructions.
The students also have to journal their building process, noting the dimensions and plans in drawings of the robot while also creating a written explanation of the process.
It’s hard work that requires a strong team spirit.
“Before this, I thought engineers are just [individual] people who are really smart and know how to build things,” Xiong said. “Now I know they’re a group of people who are really smart and know how to build things.”
As a result of their success, the Burnsview robotics club has been invited to attend a VEX Robotics showcase in Honolulu, Hawaii this July. New versions the VEX software and hardware will be coming out, and a number of teams from around the world will be able to try them out.
Ma is hoping they can “organize the logistics” for the students to go on the international trip. The club will be fundraising for the remainder of the school year to help fund the trip.