BELDING — From a distance, the nuts, bolts, gears, wires, batteries, sweat and tears that go into building a robot at the high school level are hard to measure or place in the proper perspective when the mechanical machine is sitting lifeless on a classroom desk within Belding High School.
But with the flip of a switch Saturday, eight students put all of those components and months of effort to work, bringing their robots to life as they raced, battled and bruised their way through the first robotics competition to be held at Belding High School in the Redskin Arena gymnasium.
By the end of the 22-team competition, only two teams remained standing sharing the first place trophy, and they both proudly boasted the colors of orange and black.
The Belding varsity and junior varsity robotics teams, consisting of eight high school students, teamed together to win the first Belding Vex Robotics Competition.
Minutes after the teams had been announced as the victors, junior varsity team member and freshman, Jessie Boyd, 14, still found it a little hard to believe.
“I still have butterflies in my stomach,” Boyd said after the win. “You just say, oh my gosh, that just happened!”
Competing in a two vs. two style of play in which two team members control their robots with wireless controllers in order to score more points than their opposing teams in a 12 by 12 ft. arena by placing color-coded bean bags into designated scoring areas, the Belding teams cruised into the finals to take the top prize.
Students order their parts through VEX Components. They then design and build the robot themselves for competition.
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“It’s all run by the students, we all get to do what we want do to,” Boyd said. “We get help from our coach, but it’s mostly advice. We create the robot ourselves.”
Senior Thomas Weeks, 18, celebrated with high fives and hugs with his teammates after it was announced that Belding had won the tournament.
“The object was to score as many bean bags as you can, but at the same time, being true to the rules and having good sportsmanship,” he said. “It’s a competition where we introduce many different factors of designing and programming. It’s very complex but yet simple enough for any student to pick up in a classroom.”
In six matches, the teams combined to outscore their opponents 757 to 239, going undefeated in the process.
After first competing in the qualifying rounds, in which the varsity team also went undefeated, the varsity team members chose to partner with the junior varsity team for the remainder of the competition, a move that Weeks said has proven to be a valuable tactic.
“There’s more reliability when we partner with the junior varsity team,” he said. “You don’t know where the other robots are coming from or who the drivers are , but with the junior varsity team we knew what we were going to do and what their weaknesses were.”
22 teams competed in the tournament, bringing in high school students from Battle Creek, Webberville, East Lansing, Lansing and Middleville.
With the teams meeting regularly on Mondays and Wednesdays after school hours, Weeks said the time put into the program has been well worth it.
“There are just so many things you can take away from this experience,” he said. “You can take these problem solving skills and apply them to any job that you want. It’s more than just robotics.”
Team coach and Belding High School teacher Tom Daller said he was nearly brought to tears after watching his students win the first tournament to be held at Belding High School.
“We’re doing a good thing here,” he said. “I don’t touch that robot. They touch it it, they program it, they build it. The kids do it all. This is what these kids from Belding can do.”
Daller said Saturday’s event, which was planned over a two-year period, turned out exactly the way he had drawn it up and was “perfect,” adding that he would like to see the competition return to Belding and feature as many as 30 teams in the future.
“We only have 10 or 12 kids involved in this program, but this is the only extracurricular thing that most of them do,” he said. “I give them advice, but they decide what they want to do.”
Daller, who also coaches baseball, admits he finds joy in seeing his students win.
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“I love to win,” he said. “Losing is not an option. If you’re just doing it for fun, what’s the sense? If you’re going to spend all the time to do this, then win.”
Daller may not help in a hands on manner, but he instills that mentality of winning in his students by keeping them focuses and having his students leave all distractions at the door when they enter his classroom.
“We’re knocking on the door of being really, really good,” he said.
‘Really good’ may be an understatement.
The varsity team finished 27-0 in match play this year and has won two tournaments, including Saturday’s, going undefeated in both. The team has only lost two matches, both coming in the finals of a tournament in Webberville where they also partnered with the junior varsity team, finishing second.
The junior varsity team finished 23-4 in match play and finished third in a tournament in Grandville.
Varsity team member and junior Tre Robinson, 16, who drives the varsity team robot with a wireless controller, said the victory in Belding was all the sweeter being that it was in front of a home crowd.
“Being here in Belding, it was a nice home feeling,” he said. “It made us more energetic, winning on our home turf.”
The teams didn’t run into any major issues throughout the tournament, aside from tightening screws and checking batteries.
Robinson said the experience of participating on the robotics team will go a long way for him and continue to be something that he enjoys to do on daily basis.
“I chose to be on this team because it’s more of a hands on learning experience,” he said. “It helps you with programing and helps you work together as a team to come up with this one creation that you can change multiple times, over and over again, while going for one goal — to win.”
The varsity and junior varsity teams will compete at the State competition at Michigan State University (MSU) on Feb. 24, but their plans after that are up in the air.
Both teams have qualified for the state, national and world competitions, but it will come down to a matter of funding to see how far the teams can travel.
Daller said the higher entry and travel fees of $5,000 for the national competition and $10,000 for the world competition could be too large of an obstacle to overcome without outside donations.
The team has less than four weeks to decide if it will travel to the world competition.
“It’s getting tough asking businesses for money,” he said. “They pay taxes, they pay bills, and then we have to go to them and ask for even more money.”
Tom said if the team finishes in the top 10 at MSU, the team will seriously consider traveling to the world competition.