Lutheran Central fifth-graders qualify for robotics world competition

BROWNSTOWN — The morning after competing in the Indiana Robotics State Championship, Collin McKinley was at home eating Cocoa Pebbles before heading to church.

He said his parents were looking at each other weird, and then his mother shared some exciting news.

McKinley and his robotics partner, Hank Stuckwisch, had received a bid to the VEX Robotics World Championship, set for May 2 to 4 in Dallas, Texas. There, they will compete in the driver-controlled and programming skills portion of the competition.

At the state competition March 25 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the 11-year-old Lutheran Central School fifth-graders placed 17th out of 135 elementary teams. The top 16, however, moved on to the finals and earned an automatic bid to the world championship.

They still had a shot at worlds with the skills competition, where they placed 70th. After reviewing the results, officials determined McKinley and Stuckwisch qualified based on their skills performance.

McKinley said he made his mother, Andrea, who also is his robotics coach, showed him her cellphone with the email from VEX Robotics.

“I got really excited,” he said.

Stuckwisch, meanwhile, danced around the house after hearing the news.

“It was crazy because I couldn’t believe it because while we were sitting there and we knew we were 17th at Lucas Oil, we just thought, ‘There’s still a little bit of hope, but not much,’” he said. “Then in the morning, I didn’t even bother asking (about the results). Then I asked and (Andrea) goes, ‘Yep, you guys made it.’ … We were pretty lucky to get a bid.”

The world championship brings together the top VEX IQ (elementary and middle school), VEX Robotics (high school) and VEX U (college and university) teams from around the globe to celebrate their accomplishments and participate to be crowned champions.

This season’s VEX IQ game is Slapshot, in which teams use their robots to shoot and slide discs across the playfield to score points.

Lutheran Central’s robotics program is in its fourth year, and Andrea, a fourth grade teacher at the Brownstown school, has been the coach of the Robo Saints from the start.

Collin joined robotics last year as a fourth-grader. He said he got involved because he liked building a robot and learning how to drive it, and it took some time to figure it all out.

In both competitions the school competed in, Collin and his partner made it to the finals.

This school year, Stuckwisch joined robotics and partnered with Collin.

“He was doing it, and I like building stuff. I love Legos and building,” Stuckwisch said. “I didn’t do it last year because I was on the edge of doing it and not, so then this year, I decided to, and I’m glad I did.”

The number of competitions doubled for Lutheran Central this season, and Stuckwisch and McKinley, who are part of the 47220B team, made it to the finals in all four of them.

At the last one on Feb. 25 at Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour, they won the Teamwork Champion Award, which is presented to each of the two teams on the winning alliance in the Teamwork Challenge Finals Matches.

That’s what they needed to punch their ticket to the state competition, and they became the first Lutheran Central team to accomplish that feat.

“I was super excited when they got the Teamwork Challenge championship because Lutheran Central has never gotten that because it only goes to two of the 40 to 50 teams that Mr. (Dallas) Goecker hosts at Immanuel,” Andrea said. “My goal as a coach is that they just learn the basic life skills — teamwork, perseverance, problem-solving — so the awards are really awesome, but I like the secondary benefits even more.”

Going to worlds also will be a Lutheran Central first.

“It’s awesome. Humongous,” Stuckwisch said, smiling. “After our (state) meet, we just said joking, ‘We’re just going to go to state, I don’t care if we get last, it’s just going to be fun,’ and what do we know, we get 17th. We thought we were just going to go and get in the 100s, and we got up to 17th.”

From now until worlds, Stuckwisch and McKinley are working on shooting with a new robot they built. McKinley said he’s good at coding, while Stuckwisch is good at building, so they make a good pair.

“We started with a base and we had little, little, tiny gears on the wheels and then one huge gear, which would make it really fast, but it took all the power away from it, so it could barely move from all that weight,” McKinley said.

“Because it’s such a big robot, you need more power than speed on that because it’s so big and bulky,” Stuckwisch said. “We already have it programmed for the most part. We’re just fixing little things, like for our wheels and some other stuff.”

Worlds will feature an opening ceremony before competition begins, and at some point, next season’s game will be announced.

“We’ll get the first ability to see the new game,” Andrea said.

Lutheran Central had 15 students on four teams this season. Practices started in September 2022 to build robots, and their first meet was in December.

After each meet, Andrea said the students made modifications to their robots and looked at other robots to use to their benefit for the next competition.

Many times, she said her son and Stuckwisch spent time working on their robot outside of regular practices. It all paid off, as they earned bids to the highest levels of robotics.

“They put a lot of additional time into it,” she said. “They came in early in the mornings on nonrobotics practice days. They occasionally stayed after school, so they probably put more time in general than other teams that are at Lutheran Central. They put a lot of hard work into it.”

Andrea thanked Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. for its efforts with robotics around the county.

“I am very thankful for their support because they have sponsored all of the robotics teams in some way, shape or form this season, and they are a big reason as to why we have the number of robots we have, the number of teams we have and just that we have this opportunity at Lutheran Central,” she said. “I am very grateful for them.”

Goecker also is invaluable when it comes to robotics in Jackson County, she said.

“Without him, we wouldn’t have matches and opportunities to use our skills,” Andrea said.

The estimated cost to attend worlds is $5,000, so Stuckwisch and McKinley are seeking sponsorships. Donations may be given via check to Lutheran Central School with “Robotics” in the memo so donors can receive a tax deduction.