No shortcuts: VEX robotics at Manchester Street School

Issue: Volume 97, Number 6

Posted: 9 April 2018
Reference #: 1H9iDg

In international robotics circles, New Zealand is known for its near-dominance of the world’s biggest competition: the VEX Championships, where student teams from around the world compete (and collaborate) in something like a robot Olympics. Glenfield and Lynfield Colleges are two of our superstar secondary teams who have helped to build that legacy but, proving that coming from a big centre isn’t a prerequisite, Education Gazette takes a look at the phenomenal success of Feilding’s Manchester Street Primary School – late last year they took home highest honours at the national championships, and they’re the only school in the country to have won recognition at every VEX IQ national competition since the event’s inception.

Before the lunchtime bell has finished ringing, a previously silent Manchester Street classroom is inundated with kids clutching lunchboxes. Quality sammies are not driving this particular stampede however – it’s robotics club time, led by teachers Geoffrey Ward and Andrea Bing.

The only intervention that seems necessary is a fairly futile attempt to get the assembled squad to actually eat something, before firing up robots, forming groups around design diaries, and nominating each other as timekeepers and team leaders. Nobody is loitering, and nobody has been told what to do. A robot ‘stadium’, looking something like a very small bowling alley, is assembled before we’ve had time to get our bearings.

Geoffrey is a Year 5 and 6 classroom teacher when he’s not having his ankles threatened by whizzing mini-machines at lunchtime. The NASA t-shirt he’s wearing is a clue to his sphere of interest – it’s a fascination he wants the kids in his charge to be able to access earlier in life than he was able to.

“What student – and what adult – wouldn’t want to build a robot?” says Geoffrey. “[I wanted to provide] a different sort of opportunity. There’s a whole lot here for sports, there’s different activities, but there was nothing around STEM, and robotics covers all of the STEM subjects.”

VEX is an organisation that provides the raw materials and structure for tournaments held at local, regional, national, and international level around the world. Geoffrey says one of the things that appealed to him about VEX was that it’s not just a one-off for the kids – VEX requires serious investment of time and creativity, over an entire year, before a robot is honed to competition standard.

The VEX year begins

The VEX odyssey begins in late April, when details of the year’s new robot games are handed down from on high – one can imagine the level of anticipation, as the nature of the games dictate the form and function of the robots that students will imagine, prototype, refine, and perfect. So begins a year-long process that will see numerous robot iterations put through their paces at weekend tournaments. Last year that process took the Manchester Street team all the way to Kentucky, the home of VEX, and the equivalent of the robot World Cup.

Geoffrey says that part of the reason his students can dare to dream is that relative economic means aren’t part of the equation – every single group around the world is provided the same materials with which to construct their robot David – or Goliath.

“With the VEX kits, you can pretty much design anything you like – we’ve made a walking ‘T-rex’ out of the kit in the past. You can have omni-wheels, tank tracks, we’ve even had a Rube Goldberg machine.”

Andrea Bing teaches Year 4 and 5 classes at Manchester Street. We interrupt her as she’s in a huddle of girls poring intently over a clear-file of indecipherable hieroglyphics – the precious design diary of one the school teams, the playbook that records every idea, failure and eventual success. For Andrea, it’s the structure of the VEX competition itself that appeals. She says it’s way more than a battleground.

“Although each team is an individual unit, for each tournament game [the students] have to work with another team. They’ve got to communicate, they’ve got to discuss strategy and work together. It’s brilliant because the kids communicate with their peers from other schools, other towns, kids from Auckland – and that can lead to Kentucky, where they’re working with kids from around the world. In terms of confidence alone, that’s just amazing.”

Asked why she thinks robotics can be useful in a curriculum context, Andrea’s reply is immediate: problem solving.

“The kids at the moment are working towards building a robot that picks up and moves a series of rings. So they’re being creative, they’re having to discuss problems and solutions with team-mates, they’re having to communicate ideas by designing and drawing solutions, so that their team-mates can understand their thinking. Then they’re having to compromise, to blend ideas and come up with something that works.”

Robotics as inclusive context

It was principal Glen Richardson who first emailed Education Gazette. Aside from results, which speak for themselves, his pride in his young robotics whiz-kids is immediately evident.

“I think what enthused me most about robotics and the VEX programme that we have here, is that it’s such an inclusive thing. I think that historically, engineering-type programmes and even things like sport often excluded some students – perhaps girls, perhaps students who aren’t fast, perhaps students who aren’t strong in maths. Robotics caters for a far wider range of abilities.

“I also really love the creativity, and the engagement. I was lucky enough recently to sit in on a robotics club meeting, and without a word of a lie I could have dropped a grenade next to these kids and they wouldn’t have noticed. I think that if you give kids the chance to create something really cool and innovative with very few guidelines, they can achieve amazing things.”

As a curriculum context Glen, like Andrea, talks about robotics in terms of its inherent process. There are no shortcuts between Feilding and Kentucky.

“Part of the programme that we really value is that very seldom will [the students] be successful on their first attempt. Failure actually becomes part of the process. I think that, robotics aside, that’s a great skill for life really.”

The final word must go to Ben and Taylor, of room I and room S respectively. With his principal in the room, Ben displays a level of strategic tact beyond his years.

“It’s all fun, it’s all educational, and it’s all good for my brain.”

Taylor is clearly the team’s competitive driving force. It’s all about the points, she says, with a glint in her eye. “I really like improving our robot, and getting points. I was like, YES!”

Keen to make sure our readers know that the Manchester Street teams aren’t always cool-headed pros, Ben admits that it’s tough at the top.

“It’s a big competition – it’s very ‘racking’.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:25 pm, 9 April 2018

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