Robots are taking over the Mill Creek Middle School in Dexter — but don’t worry, these robots are friendly. For the past two years, the VEX IQ robotics club has been teaching seventh and eighth-graders at Mill Creek how to work together as fully-functioning engineering teams to build their own student-designed robots. The students also come up with solutions for problems using the STEM learning principles of science, technology, engineering and math.
The seven teams at Mill Creek Middle School, made up of four students each, compete with other schools with similar VEX IQ programs in tournaments held on weekends every few weeks. Mill Creek’s robots are affectionately called Dread Bots — a play on the dreadnaught mascot of Dexter Community Schools.
The students participate in the VEX IQ Challenge Highrise robot tournaments, using a 4-by-8 foot playing field set up for robots to accomplish a specific assigned task. This year, they had to design their robots to push and stack different colored blocks within one minute. Stacking blocks instead of pushing them multiplies the overall score. Team members take turns driving the robot at competitions with what resembles a video game controller, which can also be programmed to perform in different ways.
In addition to building robots, students in VEX IQ can also participate in STEM projects at competition, where teams are given a specific problem to solve and have to come up with a solution. There are regional, state and national competitions for the VEX IQ Challenge. Over the years, the competition has grown into a global event.
Dexter’s VEX IQ group is organized through Dexter Community Education, which sets up registration and locations for the group’s Wednesday and Friday meetings from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
Earl Glenn, a parent volunteer who helps oversee the team, said the robotics program provides students with the platform to build leadership, teamwork, communication and problem solving skills in real-world situations that will last a lifetime. Glenn’s own children, Keegan and Renny, are part of the group.
“The VEX IQ is more like real life,” Glenn said in a Jan. 14 interview with We Love Dexter staff. “We want the kids to get the understanding and the feel for working for a real engineering team with the goals of developing a product, evaluating that product and then changing and making it better than when it started. All of this stuff they are learning and collecting they can apply in college and real life. It’s really important to give the kids these opportunities.”
Glenn said parents have helped get the program off the ground with the purchase of the robot kits, fundraising and paying for tournament fees.
While two parent volunteers are present during group meetings and at competitions, students are entirely responsible for their team dynamics and how their robots are designed. The students even use a derivative of C programming, designed to be more visual in nature, to code the robots.
“The kids here run the whole project themselves,” Glenn said. “Each one has a role and responsibilities. (The parents) are here to maintain and control the chaos, but the kids themselves actually run everything. We want the kids to understand what it’s like in the real world, and this is a great way to do it.”
Glenn said he has been impressed with the original designs students have brought to life from an idea.
“These kids are thinking outside of the box. Some of these teams get really creative,” Glenn said. “They are getting out of their comfort space because they’re doing something they’ve never done before. It’s really cool to watch them think — they come up with some really unique solutions, and that’s been fantastic.”
Glenn said the parent volunteers want to make VEX IQ act as a feeder program for the Dexter High School robotics team.
“Our hope is these kids will go to high school next year and they will understand a lot of this stuff and really be able to bring this program up higher because they’ve already started building the skills to do this work,” Glenn said.
According to Glenn, the parent volunteers of students in the program have been incredibly supportive. Some have career backgrounds in robotics and coding themselves. One parent volunteer is even an expert in space weather.
Laura Jones oversees the VEX IQ program as a parent volunteer. Jones, who helped develop the after-school activity for her children, Owain and Maggie, said she has been amazed by the ingenuity of the students.
Jones has plenty of her own experience with robots — she works in business development for the California-based motion controller manufacturer Delta Tau Data Systems, Inc. with her husband, Steve, who works in field engineering at the company.
Eighth-graders Isaac Ridley, chief engineer of the Dexter Dread Bots, and Assistant Chief Engineer Richard Darr lead the student-run program. Ridley and Darr help teams troubleshoot, brainstorm and solve personality conflicts. Ridley acts as the student leader of the Dexter program.
“In the beginning of the year, you really have to create all the teams,” Ridley said. “That was the most stressful part I would say, getting everybody used to robotics, teaching them about robotics and creating the teams. After that, you just have to go around and help people a lot.”
Ridley said he feels optimistic about the Dread Bots chances of success this year.
“Dexter’s been a really good team this year and I think we have a good chance of winning states,” Ridley said. “Maybe some of us might have a good chance of winning nationals.”
Ridley formed the teams based on the strengths and interests of each person in mind. He said his favorite part of VEX IQ is getting to work hands-on with the actual robots.
“I like to just take them apart and put them back together,” Ridley said. “I do that too much for our robot,” he admitted. Ridley wants to go into the field of engineering in the future.
This is student Michael Cannistraro’s first year participating in the program. He first was bitten by the robot bug a few years ago, when he made robots using Lego Robotics. Cannistraro said VEX IQ has grown on him since he first joined.
“My parents really wanted to get me into an after-school activity, and this seemed like the most fun one to do,” Cannistraro said. “At first, I was kind of skeptical about it, but as I got into it I started to like it more and more.”
Cannistraro said he likes building up a team and having fun while working together to achieve a common goal.
“It’s just a lot of fun, and I think that if you like having fun just outside of school then you should join,” Cannistraro said.
This is also the first year eighth-grader Luc Tassin has been part of the Dexter Dread Bots.
“You get a chance to kind of meet with other people that like to do this sort of stuff,” Tassin said. “This is pretty much like sports for me though. It’s a nice team-building thing.”
The Dread Bots have grown in numbers to 28 students from just 10 last year. This is the first year girls have joined the group.
Seventh-grader Molly McCormick and eighth-grader Kathryn Seward’s team have won the Inspire Award and STEM award. Their team also won a Design Award for their robot, which features an innovative three-wheeled omni-motion movement using different gear ratios, developed by fellow team member, Craig Needham, to create agile and smooth lateral movements.
McCormick said she saw the Dexter High School’s robotics team putting on a demonstration at an open house, and felt it looked like an interesting activity to try.
McCormick, who wants to become a chemical engineer, said the competitions are her favorite part of being on a team.
Seward said her interest in robots was sparked when she saw robots developed by high school students at a Michigan Robotics Day event.
“They were impressive, and awesome and I wanted to do that too,” Seward said. “I like being in a group of people who like something similar to me. It’s been a long time since that’s happened.”
Seward has aspirations of becoming a medical researcher someday.
McCormick and Seward both plan on joining the high school team in the future.
Mill Creek Middle School hosted its first VEX IQ Robotics Tournament last December. Mill Creek’s teams came away with four awards, including the Excellence Award — the top award of the competition.
The VEX IQ Challenge Highrise state finals will take place later this winter.