During the last five months, Apex Middle School’s robotics teams have worked diligently to make their robots better in every way possible.
As science teacher and robotics coach Dave Cook sees it, those improvements haven’t been confined to just the robots.
The school’s three teams recently won first, second and fourth place at the Southeastern TSA-VEX Championship held in Chapel Hill.
The impressive performance was a great reward for months of hard work. But the true benefits for the team can’t be measured by victories or trophies.
The most important payoff is the personal growth of each of the 15 students involved with robotics.
“These kids aren’t used to depending on others for their success,” said Cook. “At the beginning of the year you had some bickering within the team and now they are all bonded and inseparable. They have learned to work together and their interpersonal relationships have really strengthened.”
The students also needed a strong adult presence earlier in the year to guide them through nearly every step.
Now, they have developed a strong sense of responsibility for their work and rarely need Cook’s encouragement.
“At the beginning, I had to tell them to do the work,” said Cook. “Now, they are self-motivated. By the time I get in the room they are already on task. They have a personal motivation to succeed.
“It’s a lot of fun to see them now. I help them troubleshoot but I can mostly sit back and watch them work.”
And there is certainly a lot of work involved. Each student is required to commit a great deal of time in order to improve their skills in applied mechanics, mathematics, physics and computer programming.
The students must spend a minimum of seven hours per week on a robotics activity, an amount that most team members easily surpass.
“They give up a lot of their free time,” said Cook. “Some give up their lunch time and Saturdays so they can work on the robots. I always have someone coming to me during the school day asking for the key to the (robotics) room because they want to get some work done.”
Apex Middle’s robotics teams used to compete with Lego robots but moved up to the more advanced VEX level this year.
“It allows for a lot more creativity and design,” said Cook. “It also requires a lot more time and work. We were able to build and design a robot in a couple of weeks with Lego. Now, with VEX, it took from October through January to complete similar work.”
The 15 students were chosen from 60 applicants and the criteria focused on well-rounded individuals. Behavior, academics, commitment and positive feedback from teachers were all part of the selection process.
The students were broken up into three five-person teams and they adopted the name 4242 as homage to the humorous science fiction novel “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“We have a lot of inside jokes and goofiness,” said Cook. “It’s not all serious. The kids like to play and have a good time, too.”
It’s also a pretty nice feeling to win.
“The robot crowd isn’t always known as being cool,” said Cook. “But now that they won a championship they have been getting a lot of positive feedback from peers and teachers. You can see how their self-confidence has grown. These students have really grown since we started in October.”