CORDOVA — Bankhead Middle School hosted a robotics competition that attracted an estimated 150 students from across Alabama last Saturday.
The VEX IQ Challenge robotics competition was held for the first time at the school, hosting 35 teams.
VEX IQ competitions are held at schools and other locations across the world each year. Students first compete at a local level and can advance to the state and world competition stage.
Bankhead robotics sponsor Amber Parsons, who helped organize last Saturday's all-day VEX IQ event, explained that students are tasked with building a robot for the competition. This year's theme was "squared away" and challenged students to use their robots to move plastic cubes around and to place balls inside and on top of the cubes.
Students build the robot from a kit of snap-together parts and can use suggested robot design models or put their own spin on the robot.
"It's kind of like K'NEX or Legos, but you can build your robot however you want from that kit," Parsons said. "This has benefits in that it does not require power tools, so it takes that limitation away. Any school can do this competition, and it levels the playing field because it is parts from a kit. Everybody is using the same parts, everybody has the same tools to build the robot with."
Bankhead Middle School had six teams compete in the VEX IQ Challenge. Parrish Elementary School also had two teams in the competition.
Other teams from Mountain Brook, Decatur, Birmingham, Millbrook, Albertville, Northport, Winfield, Gaylesville and Dothan participated.
The competition was open to students in grades 3-8.
Bankhead students Maddie Murray, Alex Robbins and Logan Williams of the Wall-EE Squad finished fifth in the elementary division.
Devan Johnson and Austin Nunnely of the Tigers team (Bankhead Middle) won the Think Award, which recognizes robot development strategy.
Bankhead Middle's Snails team (middle school division) of Ara Walker, AJ Freeman, Lance Bonikowski, Cody Robertson and Kaleb Howell won first place for a STEM research project video, earning them a bid to the state competition.
The STEM video project was separate from the robot competition and tasked students with creating a four-minute video that was science-themed.
"They did a video about technology in space," Parsons said. "They did research on satellites and rovers, and they did kind of a spin-off from Magic School Bus."
Bankhead and Parrish robotics students will travel to another VEX competition in Winfield next week.
A number of judges volunteered their time for Saturday's competition at Bankhead, including 4-H Foundation Regional Extension Agent Rebecca Persons, Ed Persons, Walker County Sheriff's Deputy Guthrie, youth pastor Kellie Harbison, minister Charlie Brown, and Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley. Walker County Board of Education Technology Director Patrick Gann served as a compliance monitor for the robotics competition, and Bevill State Community College robotics instructor Robbie Spears was a referee.
Parsons said she hopes other schools will be inspired to start a robotics program.
Robotics education offers STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities and provides an additional creative outlet for youth.
"It is very difficult for teachers to jump into robotics, because it's an area that we don't know. We don't have training in education about how to program robots or how to build these things," she said. "We have to let go of that control to the students. That's hard for teachers to do, but VEX is wonderful because you can take it in baby steps."
According to Parsons, grant programs are available for schools to receive robot kits, free of charge, for the VEX IQ competition. The only caveat is that school's have to commit to attending one VEX robotics competition to showcase students' work in building the robot.
There are VEX competitions for grades 3-12.
The REC Foundation Team Grant Program is one funding source that helped Bankhead secure robot kits for the VEX competition.
"There are a lot of grants out there that are really easy for schools to get if they want to start a robotics program," Parsons said.
The robot kits are beneficial not only for competing, but they can also be taken apart and used multiple times over by students.
Bankhead has competed and fared well in a number of robotics competitions over the years, and Parsons said it was a special opportunity to host a competition at the school.
"We're very excited to bring this kind of competition to Walker County and hope to encourage more schools in the area to jump in and start participating," she said.