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Burnside Robotics Team gears up for World Championships

Mar. 8—Gather now, robots of the world!

It sounds like a tagline from a sci-fi film. In reality, it's what will take place in Dallas, Texas in May, and a group of very special — and very smart — youngsters from Burnside will be there, tech in tow.

This past weekend at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, Ky., Robotics Team 519X from Burnside Elementary School won the right to compete in the 2024 VEX Robotics World Championship over teams from all around the Bluegrass State.

"All the qualifying teams in the whole world will be competing," said the team's coach, Amanda Cox, who noted that there were 400 qualifying spots for the elementary school world championships, and Kentucky had three spots available.

Burnside claimed one of them at the state championship level — which they made with their success at a local competition at Pulaski Elementary School in early February — by winning the Overall Excellence Award.

"To win the Excellence Award, (the students) were interviewed by a panel of judges, and were scored on the interview. They (also) have an engineering design notebook and they get a score on their notebook," said Cox. "So we had the top score for our notebook and our interviews and the (robot) driving.

"(The judges) ask them how they came up with their design , who built the robot — because it's all supposed to be student centered, so the kids have to prove that they did the research, they came up with the design, they built it, they did all the programming," she added. "They just explain their whole design process."

The notebook contains both sketches by the students and photographs, and has a digital element, noted Cox.

Teams from Stamping Ground and Georgetown, both of which were at the local competition last month, also claimed Kentucky's sports at Worlds by winning a Teamwork competition. These three beat out 15 others to make it to State — out of 42 elementary robotics teams in the Kentucky overall.

This is the second straight year for Burnside Elementary's robotics team to go to Worlds (they finished 42, having won at the state level for the most innovative robot design), but students who made it last year have moved up to middle school, noted Cox, so the three that won have not yet experienced that level of competition and are "very excited" for it.

"They have worked their tails off," said Cox. "They have practiced their interviews, they've practiced their design process. They made sure every little detail was in their notebook. ... It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of patience and a lot of time."

The team is comprised of three fourth-graders, all 9 years of age: Kyleigh Davis, Tom Crockett and Carter Cox.

The students basically have to build the robots from scratch, using robotics pieces from the VEX IQ company.

"The robots are not designed for them," said Cox. "They have to research gear ratios, motors and sensors and how everything works together. It's a big commitment. Every competition we go to, they look at their design and see what they can do to redesign and make it better the next time."

Robotics is a complicated subject matter at any age; for children, it would seem especially so. But even in the world of technology, there are still effective ways of speaking the language of young people in a way that makes complex ideas easier to understand.

"Most programming languages are text, but for this age, they do what's called block coding, or block programming," said Cox. "Your command blocks are all a certain color. All of the blue blocks tell the kids that that's going to make the robot go forward or backward or turn left or turn right. Then their sensor programs are all a certain color, so the know the purple codes are going to tell their sensors to light up or do different things.

"Eventually, once they've got the block coding down, they move on and start translating it into the actual text coding," she added.

When it comes to the robots themselves, don't think of most of the fanciful androids you'd see in science fiction films but rather something more the size of a small house pet — designed in this case to complete the task of picking of blocks and carrying them from one place to another with an excavator-like design. That action represents the specific "game" students were tasked with addressing in this season of competition and tournament circuit.

Teams get points for every block they get in a tower, and can get points for doing in in specific ways, such as getting blocks all of the same color. There are different ways to score and robots are designed to do as much of it as possible.

At the World Championships May 1-3, Burnside will take on teams from not only the rest of the United States but also countries like China, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and many more; last year, there were at least 20 other countries that Burnside was paired up with, noted Cox.

"China usually definitely has the edge," said Cox. "China, the U.S. and Canada usually have a very strong showing."

The students will be doing the same robotics tasks as at their previous competitions, "just (laid out) on a much larger scale," said Cox.

She observed that Burnside has been among the top teams in Kentucky all year, "so it's really good for them to go see what's out there so they can expand their knowledge and see what they can work toward in the future."

Another fun aspect of the Worlds experience is found not with technology but rather the human element.

"They spent a lot of time collaborating and meeting people from all over and just getting to experience different people," said Cox.

There is a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com) set up to help raise money for the team's trip to the World Championship, under the name "World Robotics Tournament, organized by April Mounce." You can go there at https://tinyurl.com/mkz2krku to offer financial support to the Burnside Elementary robotics team and help them meet their $7,000 goal.

"It is $1,800 just to register," said Cox. "So on top of traveling and all that, we have to pay that just to even be in the competition. So we're trying our best to help them get there."

When they do get there, they'll be hungry. Cox was proud of her group of students and the effort they've put in to getting where they are, applying that most human of traits to the world of robotics: fire in the belly.

"These kids wanted this," said Cox. "They put in extra practice. They have just worked so hard. The judges actually came up to me afterward and said that (the students) were just on fire, that they could tell that (the students) wanted it and that they had worked for it."