Madison Park Middle School VEX practice area.

Robotics company VEX runs tournaments around the country with the goal of increasing access to STEM learning for middle and high school students. This year’s Arizona VEX State Qualifier was held January 18 at Madison Highland Prep.

Students spent time after school building their robots in order to have a chance to potentially make their way to the VEX world championship.

According to Madison Highland Prep VEX coach Terri Lake, competition day is stressful for students. They arrive first thing in the morning. Once teams find their table, they start by making sure batteries are charged and parts are working. Then they check in with judges to make sure their robot meets specifications, such as height, and if needed, they make adjustments.

There are usually three fields used throughout the day; two for the competition and one for practice. Students will take the robot to the practice field to make sure the code and the controls are working.

Lake explained that the day of the competition consists of making adjustments, talking with other teams, helping with other team’s robots and competing several times.

The winners of the state qualifier will move on to the state championship competition in March. That winner will advance to the world competition, where the team will compete against 40 countries to determine the world champion.

This year, Madison Park Middle School competed for the first time. Although they went up against high schoolers, eighth grader Savannah Bettancourt said her team used its younger age as a motivating factor. 

“There are a few high schoolers who come in and help us, but what we are doing now is stuff that they have never even tried before, so they are all pretty shocked by us. It’s given us the confidence to say, yeah, we’ve got this,” Bettancourt said. 

Bettancourt became interested in robotics at summer camp last year, and along with library associate and coach Benjamin Garduno, has helped establish the robotics program at the middle school. Bettancourt also recruited her friend Daisy Borrayo, who through this experience has developed a passion she had no idea was there.

“I really do love it, and it’s a really good challenge for us at our age, to learn how to make and code a robot into moving,” Borrayo said. 

Madison Park’s group consisted of 20 students split into two teams. The teams were judged on how well their robots were programmed, and they received points when their robots were able to pick up and drop small pieces into different areas of the court. 

“I would say this was a good experience for students because it teaches them perseverance and how to communicate effectively. Part of the tournament requires the team members to talk to the judges and explain the process of how they came up with the robot design and the challenges along the way,” Lake said. 

This year’s competition presented Madison Highland Prep with the Excellence Award and Camelback High School with the Robot Skills Champion award.