Judges and students watch the tobots go through their paces on tabletops set up in the school gym.
CLEARWATER – Dozens of people, students and parents, from all over Florida gathered at Oak Grove Middle School on Belcher Road to participate in a robotics competition on Jan. 18, and the enthusiasm was evident by the chatter and constant movement of all who were involved.
The competition attracted teams of middle school students from as far away as Vero Beach in Florida as well as a team from the Cayman Islands. The competition is part of the First Lego League, which hopes to encourage an interest in science and technology, while building little robots made from a special Lego kit.
The organizer of the Oak Grove event, Kyle Wright, a technology teacher at the school, said the competition is important in many ways other than just building a Lego robot.
“This isn’t just about games,” Wright said. “It is about the project because they are going to encounter problems and they are going to have to solve those problems by themselves.”
It’s no small order for kids from age 9 to 14, yet Wright said they are able to handle it because of another staple of the program – core values.
“Core values are all about professionalism. It teaches kids to be co-operative,” Wright said. “It also teaches kids to interact with adults; they have to talk to adults during the competitions.
All in all, they learn without having to sit and use a textbook.”
Among those taking part in the competition was Anthony Hope, a seventh grader from Oak Grove. He’s been involved with robotics for a while and says he loves it.
“I like it. It is really fun,” Hope said. “I hope to be able to keep doing this all through middle school.”
It might be fun, but Hope admits it is hard work too.
“It is not easy; it is hard, but you get used to it,” Hope said. “There is always something challenging to deal with when you are involved with building and operating robots.”
Hope says his involvement with robotics makes him think he might like to become an engineer once he graduates from high school, but he’s hedging his bets on the future saying that he might also like to be an architect.
Another budding engineer nearby was Emma McPhilamy, also a seventh-grader at Oak Grove. Although she is on a robotics team at school, she wasn’t competing on Saturday. Instead, she was acting as a table setter. She explained that meant that as one competition ended, she had to make sure the table, where the activities take place, was cleaned up and ready for the next round.
“I was in one competition in St. Petersburg this year,” she said. “I’m hoping to go into more, and for sure I’m going to stay involved in this through middle school and maybe in high school.”
Like Hope, she also was hedging her bets on a possible career after graduation. Besides considering engineering, McPhilamy said she might like to become a veterinarian.
Organizer Wright said those kinds of choices are good for the students, and he believes their involvement in the robotics program and learning things such as core values helps them in that regard.
Wright said he, too, will continue to be involved in teaching robotics to the students, and he’ll continue to organize the competition at Oak Grove.
“This will be my third year organizing this event,” Wright said. “I’ve also attended four others this year, mostly over in Tampa. In fact, ours is the only one in Pinellas County. That’s why we are making it an annual event.”
Wright pointed out that teams who enter the robotics competitions are usually school-based teams, but he said that doesn’t have to be the case. As long as the participants are between 9 and 14 years old, then they would be eligible to enter the competition.
Sixteen teams were involved in this year’s competition.