By Cindy Zomar, Education Coordinator
MARLBOROUGH – In spite of the pandemic, hybrid and remote classes, and having to rely on Zoom for team meetings, it was a great year for the Whitcomb Middle School VEX robotics team.
Capping it all off, eighth grade student Katelyn Massey culminated her three years on the team with a championship performance during the recent VEX Skills Challenge, maneuvering her robot, Ivy, through its paces.
She was chosen for the CREATE Award, recognizing that her “robot design incorporates a creative engineering solution to the design challenges of the season’s game,” according to the VEX website.
This is the first year since 2014 that the Whitcomb team has qualified for the VEX World Competition, which gives students the chance to compete against other schools in China, New Zealand, Canada, Columbia and Australia, albeit virtually this year.
“Normally there would have been tournaments and teams would qualify based on the total of their tournament scores plus their skills score, but this year, everything was based on just skills,” explained Joanne Mahoney, one of the robotics team’s mentors.
Mahoney, a retired science teacher, has been with the program since its beginning. She and engineering teacher Jeff Gay will now be gearing up for the next season starting as early as August.
“Because of COVID-19, we decided to be safe this season and have students build and program their own robots,” Gay said. “So, they are essentially one-person teams.”
As such, Massey designed and constructed her robot from scratch with parts that she had. The requirements for the game challenge were to remove blue balls from a series of goals, and replace them with red ones.
“The programming was complicated so I had to program a sensor to detect the color of the balls,” Massey explained.
Using a plethora of orange rubber bands to grip and push or pull the plastic balls, her machine could pull the blue balls out of the goal at the bottom while it pushed the red balls in at the top.
The competition consisted of judges watching on a live stream and scoring accordingly.
In addition to Massey, Mahoney added that Andre DeFarias and Craig Sainio were two other students who worked especially hard to prepare for their competitions.
“Andre is a seventh grader, so he will be back here next year while Craig and Katelyn will have the opportunity to join the high school team,” Mahoney said.
Stressing that everyone had to be flexible this year to adapt to the ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines of the last year and a half, Mahoney actually drove to each student’s home to drop the necessary parts and supplies at their doorstep during this process.
Once things began to open up, cohorts could occasionally meet at the school if they had transportation, as there were no late buses running.
At the end of it all, a typical year would have had Saturday tournaments in either Framingham or Worcester. But those were canceled.
“We did what we had to do to keep it alive, it is such an important STEM project,” Mahoney said. “Students learn the engineering design process and how it relates to real life.”