BELDING — On the robotics world’s biggest stage, more than 2,000 miles from home, the Belding High School Robotics Team marched into Anaheim, Calif., and made an impression the students will never forget.
Competing against more than 400 of the best Vex High School Robotics teams at the World Tournament from April 23-26, the five-member team fought through frustration, nervousness and adversity to finish among the top 50 teams.
The team entered competition on an even field, but after winning eight of 10 qualifying matches, students found themselves ranked as the number 10 team in their competitive region.
With five regions consisting of 86 teams each, the top-10 spot put Belding in elite company and a chance to move on to the quarterfinals of its region.
And Belding did just that.
The five-member team, consisting of high school students Tyler Gasper, Jessie Boyd, John Parcher, Haley Davis and Taylor Sluiter, partnered with two other teams from Hawaii, and competed against teams from Oakland, Calif., Houston, Texas, and Tauranga, New Zealand.
Belding lost the best-of-three match, but in their first-ever trip to the Vex Robotics World Competition, they left achieving the highest level the program has witnessed to date.
Belding Robotics Coach Tom Daller said he couldn’t be more proud of the accomplishments of his students.
“In all my years of education I have never been involved in an event that promotes academics and intense competition,” he said. “These students have demonstrated qualities we all would be proud of. Small town USA was represented well by our children.”
The team had a successful year, having won the Grandville Robotics League and Grandville Robotics Tournament.
The team hosted its second annual Belding Robotics Tournament at Belding High School and then competed at the state tournament at Michigan State University where the team qualified for the world competition.
“These kids balanced humility and confidence when making strategic decisions with other teams,” Daller said. “I was overwhelmed by the students’ drive to participate, their determination and dedication. I was amazed by their pride in themselves, community, state, and region.”
For the students, competing on the world stage was a setting unlike any other.
Junior John Parcher, 16, said he found himself communicating with teams from across the world using a white board, markers, and an iPad, as he spoke with other students from as far away as China.
“We were kind of an oddball at the tournament, no one had a robot that was designed like ours, our robot was a really good support bot,” he said. “It was a little scary when we got there, but we kept a positive attitude. We learned a lot and I think we’ll be able to plan things out better to be more prepared in the future. We learned that there is always a different design out there that can be bigger and better than what you have.”
For senior Hayley Davis, 18, the opportunity to see the designs of robots created by students from across the world was overwhelming.
“It’s crazy to see how simple our robot was compared to some of the others we saw,” she said. “And then to see how well we did. This program, it changes the way you view robotics. I have a passion for it now.”
The team overcame major struggles that included having to rewrite the robot’s software on the eve of competition.
Junior Taylor Sluiter, 17, said he spent two and a half hours rewriting code after a new update downloaded to the robot corrupted their computer.
“It was very aggravating, but we talked it out as a team,” he said. “We ended up tearing our robot apart and changing our gear ratio. Eventually we did a lot better in matches.”
The team that Belding lost to in the quarterfinals of their region finished as runner-up for the world tournament.
“Our robot was extremely basic compared to many of the other robots,” Sluiter said. “But our team was extremely effective and had we not competed against the world runner-up, we may have won a few rounds in the quarterfinals.”
Belding witnessed its highest level of success in program history, and now the students are hoping that success will translate into more popularity for the program.
Parcher said he is hoping a new advanced robotics course to be implemented at the school next year, as well as a possible middle school robotics program, will help generate buzz for the robotics program.
“I really think that younger kids would get really excited about this,” Parcher said. “Opening it up to them, where they can get the skills that may lead them into an engineering career, or even just to help figure out where they want to go in life, it’s an extremely helpful program.”
Sluiter said the Vex Robotics program has already turned him in the direction of pursuing mechanical engineering in the future.
“Robotics has opened up the idea of mechanical engineering for me,” he said. “There’s a lot of places that offer mechanical engineering with a scholarship that does pertain to Vex Robotics, and I’m hoping for that.”
Sophomore Jessie Boyd, 15, said she too believes her experience will help her after high school as she plans to pursue a career in the medical field.
“I think robotics is one of the major programs that is developing quickly across the country,” she said. “You see robots used everywhere.”
Belding High School Principal Brett Zuver said he was very proud that the team was able to qualify and participate in the world tournament, and was impressed with the level of success the students obtained.
“It was a very, very prideful moment for a lot of people in the community and here at the high school,” he said. “It was a great experience for all of them, as it’s not often you get a chance to travel to the Los Angeles area. Building unity, teamwork and thinking on the fly, while also experiencing the cultures of so many other teams from other countries, it was a once in a life time opportunity for our students.”
Daller said he was especially thankful of the many donations that the team received, allowing them to travel to California.
The cost of the trip was approximately $8,000, of which half was covered by donations.
“We can’t thank our sponsors and the people of this and other communities enough,” he said. “Without you, this wouldn’t have been possible, our students wouldn’t have had the chance to receive this amazing experience.”