County Office of Education Sponsors VEX Robotics Competition

By Tim Pompey

It’s a beautiful Saturday fall morning, the kind where you can imagine boys and girls gathering on soccer fields or football fields across Southern California.

21 students teams from across Southern California competed in the VCOE’s 2017 VEX Robotics Competition on Saturday, November 4, at the VCOE’s Conference and Educational Service Center in Camarillo

But today, sports isn’t the only competition in town. Other kids from middle schools and high schools across the region are preparing to compete . . . with robots. Yes, robots. Not the science fiction kind. These are more like specialized erector sets with batteries, wires, computer coding, and plenty of metal parts, basic stuff, but for many middle and high schoolers, it’s the beginning of a love affair with science and technology.

Today they will compete in the third annual VEX Robotics Competition, sponsored by the Ventura County Office of Education (VCOE) at the VCOE’s conference center in Camarillo. 21 teams have gathered to show off their engineering and computer programming skills. Their reward—a chance to move on to state, national, and international levels of VEX competition.

VEX is the brainchild of Tony Norman, an Electrical Engineer, and Bob Mimlitch, a Mechanical Engineer, who met as mentors at a local high school robotics competition. They became friends and business partners and established a high-tech company called Innovation First (IFI) in Tony’s garage in Greenville, TX, about 40 miles east of Dallas.

Today, IFI includes three divisions, more than 300 employees, and nine offices worldwide. As Norman and Mimlitch carried on their involvement in STEM mentorships, they founded the VEX Robotics Division to expand their efforts on a global scale. VEX lives on as IFI’s largest subsidiary.

VEX’s mission, according to their website, is to “create engaging, affordable, and powerful solutions that immerse students in STEM through the excitement of building and programming robots.”

According to John Tarkany, Coordinator of Student Competitions at the Ventura County Office of Education, to compete in the VEX robotics competition, students must have some preliminary preparation. Before they enter their robots, they must first sign up through the VEX Robotics Program to establish that they’ve passed the first hurdle of owning a robot and all the equipment necessary for it.

John Tarkany, Coordinator of Student Competitions, Ventura County Office of Education

Once the students arrive at the VEX Robotics Competition, all their robots are inspected for their size, functionality, and coding to make sure they’re operational. After the robots are inspected and cleared, they’re ready to begin the match.

“They form alliances,” said Tarkany. “Two teams will be on a red alliance, two teams will be on a blue alliance, and they’ll face off against each other.

“For the first 30 seconds, the robots are going to drive themselves, autonomous, meaning programmed, and then for the next minute and forty-five seconds they are going to be driver controlled. What they have to do during this time is a series of hurdles to manipulate things, in this case cones, and based on how many of these tasks they accomplish they’re scored, and the winning alliance will get the high score and win that match. Each team is probably going to play about eight matches today before we get to the elimination final matches.”

Three teams will qualify for the state competition. There is also an excellence award. The winner of that award will also qualify for the state competition.

After an all-day competition, the following winners were announced:

*    Tournament Champions: Student Independent Team from Sherman Oaks, El Camino Real Charter High School from Woodland Hills, and Calabasas High School from Calabasas.

*    The Excellence Award went to Team Lancers C from Grace Brethren Junior and Senior High School in Simi Valley.

What motivates students to participate in robotics?

Breanna Mikol, 13, an 8th grader at La Reina Middle School, became involved through a friend’s invitation. “I got interested a year ago,” she said. “My friend introduced me to robotics. Then I got on the team three months later.”

Even at her age, she’s already thinking about her career. “I’m really into engineering,” she declared. “I think it’s really cool how everything fits together.”

She links her current interest in robotics to her future education: “In college, I’d like to learn about forensic chemistry, and any sciences basically I find interesting. Chemical engineering seems the most interesting to me.”

Cooper Ray, 13, a 7th grader at Grace Brethren Middle School, explained the basics of robotics. In other words, what makes a robot a robot?

“I guess you could say that it has a cortex, a computer brain. It tells everything what to do once we plug in our computer program and it keeps that information, and then there’s the battery, so I guess that’s what makes a robot a robot.”

Cooper has a different life goal in mind. “I want to get a degree in automotive engineering,” he said.

This type of competition seems to fit well with his career goal. “It seems like this would be pretty helpful just knowing the basics, designing a plan and putting it all together.”

Ami Carion is the mother of Madison Carion, an 8th grader at La Reina, a girl’s Catholic School in Thousand Oaks. She appreciates the fact that her school is encouraging more girls to be involved with science and STEM activities.

Amy Carion (back row, middle), volunteers with the middle school robotics team from La Reina Catholic High School in Thousand Oaks

“There’s absolutely a lot of emphasis on efforts to try and get these girls to really understand that they can do anything they want, and STEM is definitely a big part of that,” she said.

“My daughter Madison loves robotics,” she added. “It’s a great thing for her and I encourage her to be involved and do as much as she wants in robotics.”

From a teaching perspective, robotics is a natural connection to math and science.

Frank Bidak is a middle and high school computer science and robotics instructor and serves as the robotics coach for the middle school team from Magnolia Science Academy 2 Charter School for Science and Technology in Van Nuys.

Frank Bidak (back right), sponsored two teams from Magnolia Science Academy 2 Charter School for Science and Technology in Van Nuys

Bidak has two teams entered in this VEX competition: one for sixth graders and the other a team of 7th and 8th graders. He also has two more teams competing today out in Riverside.

“I encourage kids to learn computer science, and robotics is one of the best ways to learn computer science,” he pointed out. “They get hands on experience by building the robot and programming it. It’s also a part of our STEM education vision in our school. We encourage students to build and learn programming.”

Bidak noted that part of the learning experience was in failing and learning to problem solve: “In building they learn how to fail and make it better and improve and operate their creation, and then once they’re done with designing the robot, they start programming. They come up with different algorithms to solve the problem.”

Poem Hanna, a science, math, and special education teacher for 7th and 8th graders at R.J. Frank Academy of Marine Science & Engineering in Oxnard, talks about how teaching robotics in the classroom becomes an enjoyable hands-on learning experience for her students.

Science, Math and Special Education instructor Poem Hanna (2nd left) sponsored a team of 7th and 8th graders from R.J. Frank Academy of Marine Science and Engineering in Oxnard.

“I think it’s amazing what I see,” she said. “I enjoy my day here at the competition, so I’m assuming the kids are enjoying it too. They don’t realize they’re working. They are problem solving. They’re talking to each other. The kids who are the most quiet kids, you’ll see them start to blossom because they have to communicate and work through problems with each other. And even if they don’t get it, they don’t care. They’re like ‘What shall we try next?’”

The key to their success—true in robotics, true on the job—is the ability to work together.

“I think no matter if the code changes or the building changes ten years from now, it doesn’t matter,” she explained. “By participating in robotics, they have the skills to problem solve and communicate.”


Photo Credits: Tim Pompey


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Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on

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