At New England qualifier: Young robotics experts put on show

Young robot builders from throughout the area gathered at Masuk High School Saturday to compete in the sixth annual Masuk VEX Robotics Qualifier for the New England championships.

Masuk Robotics Club members drive their robot at the tournament.

The VEX competitions task students to work on teams to design and build a robot to play against other teams in a game-based engineering challenge, said Randy Bonomi, a mentor to the Southington Robotics Club, which sent four teams that day.

“It’s interesting to watch,” said Katrina Welch, who has a son in the Masuk High School Robotics Club, as she observed the students playing matches onstage in the auditorium, two drivers per team against two drivers of another team. “Once you figure out the dynamics, it’s fun. It’s so diverse. The (club) includes every gender, every grade, every student, athletes, academics, anyone who wants to belong.”

Masuk High robotics coach Bill McDonough said 70 volunteers helped run the tournament.

“I have never seen an event run smoother than this past weekend,” said McDonough. “We had 45 VEX teams from 16 schools and 11 VEX IQ teams bringing close to 100 people into the building over the course of the day. The feedback that I got over the course of the day was all positive, and everyone thanked us for hosting the event.”

The competitors are identified by robot names, not students, said McDonough.

“We currently have 14 robots, nine high school and five middle school, competing,” said McDonough, “and roughly 150 students grades six to 12 involved.”

RJ Bos and Jack Aronson, eighth graders at Weston Middle School, are driving the Weston Robotics Club’s team robot in a ‘field’ competition at Saturday’s VEX Robotics Competition at Masuk High School.

Among the competition’s highlights, Steve HarBot was tournament finalist and excellence award winner for being the overall best robot of the day; Pineapple VEXpress was a tournament finalist; MonroBots was the judges award winner and runner-up for the design award; VexEclipse won the Middle School Excellence award; and 4478C, 4478S, 4478V, and 4478Y all qualified for the Southern New England Championships.

“Overall we had 10 of our 14 teams in the top 30 spots, and all of our teams competed in the elimination portion of the event,” said McDonough. “The most exciting part of the day for me was hearing our teams talk while we were cleaning up about what we need to do next. Our goal is to create lifelong learners who understand that failure helps us learn and grow. We had many successes over the course of the day, none more important than realizing we still have a long way to go and many challenges ahead of us.”

The teams constructed robots with VEX materials that meet design specifications, then competed, with two drivers against two in some matches, and two against a field to pick up cones in another instance, among games at the all-day tournament.

One of four teams that competed Saturday was an all-girls team from Southington High School.

Such tournaments are held year-round at the regional, state and national levels and culminate at the VEX Robotics World Championship in April, according to the VEX website.

By 10 a.m., the Masuk lot was nearly full with cars, vans and buses from schools throughout New England. In the cafeteria, scores of teams practiced for their games, in which the competitors were selected randomly.

“Kids love to do this,” said Bonomi. “It’s a lot of fun. Some of these kids don’t play sports. They find themselves through robotics.”

Madalin Verderame, a 10th grader from Southington, said her team is “unusual. We are all girls.”

“That’s not at all common,” said sophomore Betul Agirman, adding that the girls’ robot “can grab cones easily. It does what other robots in the room can do. They all look a little different.”

Mary Bilodeau, an 11th grader, explained how the girls worked for eight weeks on their design. “It’s been a lot of programming, building, re-building and testing,” said Bilodeau. “We’re in constant re-design.”

Paige Sriubas, an eighth grader from Greenwich Academy, said she likes working with robots, and her team is “a group of friends at school, so it makes it especially nice to be in the robotics club together.”

Students from Choate Robotics are shown. In all, 45 VEX teams from 16 schools and 11 VEX IQ teams competed at the tournament.

“Kids can belong to the club if they’re interested in building robots,” said Weston Robotics coach Rebecca Kaplan, a STEM teacher at Weston Middle School. “It’s an open enrollment. If they’re committed they can come.”

“These boys,” said Kaplan, as she watched two of her team’s eighth graders play the “field,” “have been working on their design since April. They scored 32, our highest in a driver skills competition.”

Kaplan then watched as her squad members RJ Bos and Jack Aronson stacked cones, “playing against the clock” in a one-minute, 45-second challenge. The Weston club has 32 boys and girls, Kaplan said.

Rex Kaplan, a Weston eighth grader, explained how robot building can be frustrating.

“It has multiple functions,” he said. “It has to pick up cones and stack them. All of the things that can go wrong, go wrong. Our side supports were too large so we didn’t pass inspection at first. We had to take them off, then passed.”

For the day’s results, visit robotics-competition/RE- VRC-17-2634.html.

For live stream footage on YouTube of Saturday’s robotics tournament, visit


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