A fourth grader stared down at the competition table in front of him Saturday at Immanuel Lutheran School on Seymour’s south side.
Leo Holle, who attends Seymour-Redding Elementary School, watched as the robot he helped build would move across the table around stacked items it picked up, swerving to avoid other competitors on the floor.
It was a brief practice session the 10-year-old observed before another afternoon of matches began during the third Jackson County Robotics Competition.
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The competition featured 31 elementary and 23 high school teams from nearly two dozen local and regional schools. Many of the teams were from Jackson County, but others were from regional schools including some from Indianapolis.
Holle said he had the opportunity to start competing last year and joined because it sounded like fun.
He returned for another year, driven by the thrill of competing against others.
“I like competing,” he said before sprinting over to get a better view of the field.
Holle thought his robot had an advantage because the way it was constructed allowed it to stack hubs easier than other robots — based on his observation.
“It can stack hubs different ways because the hubs fall out of its grasp easier than the others,” he said.
The goal in the elementary competition, which use plastic robots, was for two robots to work together to stack small hubs that resemble barrels on top of each other in a goal zone.
Points also were awarded at the end if competitors could stop their robot in a parking zone or make it hang off a bar and not touch the ground with additional points available for higher bars.
Each match was one minute and teams each had about eight matches where they’re ranked for the finals.
“We basically take the top half of the teams and rank them together,” said Dallas Goecker, who organizes the competition. Goecker, who lives in Seymour, also assists Trinity Lutheran High School’s robotics team.
The robotics program and tournament circuit around the country is organized by the Robotics Education Competition Foundation. It focuses on increasing student interest and involvement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through engagement in robotics.
The competitions are governed and overseen by the foundation.
“They define the games and set the rules,” Goecker said.
Innovation First International produces parts and pieces for competitive VEX robots used in the competitions.
High school teams use metal and are given move opportunities for ingenuity, because they’re allowed to modify parts by cutting, gluing and through other methods.
“You can cut them, bend them, drill them and machine them out,” Goecker said. “You’re given a lot more freedom with what you can do with parts.”
The robots are bigger, more powerful and the games are more complex than those at the elementary level, he said.
For example, while elementary teams stack hubs on top of each other for their competitions, high school squads build robots that can pick up balls, shoot at targets and fight each other.
“There’s sort of a ‘King of the Hill’ thing going on where the teams have to see who is the strongest and who can be on top,” he said.
The county has seen a sharp rise in participation throughout the last few years, Goecker said.
“Official teams have grown massively as we have doubled in size for official VEX teams,” he said. “We have a lot of schools that are growing and started (teams) for the first time.”
Many are interested because of word-of-mouth, but also because of the partnership Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. has with local programs.
Goecker works with Jackie Hill at JCIDC to secure funding for programs.
Hill said the organization provided $10,000 in funding throughout 2018 at each participating school. Programs at Lutheran Central School in Brownstown and Medora were started with the funds this year.
The money also helps buy supplies and supports other needs.
Hill said the programs are important to local industries because they develop the next generation of potential workers.
“As JCIDC Workforce Partnership is charged with connecting education with our business and industry, it is important that we play a lead role in programs such as VEX Robotics hoping to develop those future pipeline of workers so critical to our employers,” she said.
The work has put Jackson County on the map as one of the strongest counties for participation in robotics.
Last year, Jackson County had the second largest number of robotics teams in the state, he said.
Marion County, which is home to about 900,000 Hoosiers and is more than 20 times the size of Jackson County, ranked first.
“And the mayor gave every school a kit a few years ago,” he said.
An as far as official VEX teams go, Jackson County still ranked seventh, Goecker said.
Havele Tonga, 9, a fourth grader at St. Ambrose School, was one of the newest students competing Saturday.
She joined the school’s team this year and has already participated in several competitions.
Her favorite part was putting everything together ahead of the competition.
Tonga was prepared as her team gets together once a week to practice.
“I really like building the robot,” she said. “I like the designs you can do.”
Goecker said lessons learned in practices and competitions are used in industry each day. The benefit of local programs are that students learn those lessons at a young age and in a fun way.
“They’re going to learn when their robot doesn’t work and they’re going to learn why it doesn’t work and what it takes to make it work better,” he said.
All of the calculations to make the robot have more force, strength, speed and other information is learned with each practice and competition, Goecker said.
When students reach a certain class in school, many realize they know the lessons because they’ve completed the same problems with their robots, he added.
“What I really want is not for the kids to do the math in advance, but to realize when they take math and geometry in high school that they have been doing it for years,” Goecker said.
JCIDC’s help also is a big reason why the participation here has outpaced larger communities, he said.
Goecker has been influential in starting the robotics programs and develops students at the elementary level.
He used to be the head coach at Trinity Lutheran High School, but has received help from Trinity graduate and engineer Cory Burbrink, who is now the head coach.
Goecker said his approach is to help students understand how the robots work and that failing is an important part of learning how to make necessary adjustments and become better.
“My job as a coach and mentor is to not keep them from failing, but to just make sure they don’t spend too long coming to that failure,” he said.
So Goecker doesn’t want a student to spend weeks working on an idea that will not work, but wants them to try to figure it out in a couple of days.
If they’re struggling within that time frame, he steps in to provide a little more guidance.
“Learn from your failures,” he said. “The more mistakes they make as a child, the better off they will be in the future.”