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A sixth-grade robotics team, the Gear Grinders, wins the regional 2018-2019 VEX IQ Challenge tournament and advances to the PA state competition. The group competed against 22 teams of sixth through eighth graders from the Pittsburgh area at Marshall Middle School in North Allegheny. 

 The VEX IQ Challenge, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, is played on a 4’x 8’ rectangular field. The object of this year’s game is to attain the highest score by stacking colored hubs in scoring zones, removing bonus hubs from the top of a structure, and parking under or hanging from a baron the structure. 

The Gear Grinders won 1st place in the following events: 

·     Robot skills: The team posted the highest overall scores in both programming (autonomous) and driving (teleop) to win this event.  In an autonomous program, the robotmoves itself on the field and carries out tasks without driver interaction. Teleop(driving)is the technical term for the remote control of a robot. In a teleop program, human operators control the movements of the robot from a distance after it has been programming to understand commands.

 According to team parent, Linda Santel, “…even a last-minute programming snafu couldn’t stop them. Kudos to Ryan Hyatt for reprogramming their autonomous robot on the spot and under intense pressure! This was an unbelievable experience for all involved.” 

·       Teamwork: In teamwork, two teams are paired together to complete tasks with their robots for a combined score. Teams are randomly paired for each match and compete with different partners throughout the day. To be successful, teams strategize with each other to determine how to utilize their programming and driving talents to maximize points. After 50 qualifying matches, the Gear Grinders ended in first place and went on to win the overall tournament after final matches. Way to go Gear Grinders! 

·       STEM Research Project:  Each year, VEX selects one STEM area (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) as part of the competition to encourage additional learning in a STEM field; this year’s focus is math. Teams research, explore, and create projects to demonstrate their learning. The Gear Grinders started their research by working with John Choi from Carnegie Mellon University and Choitek to learn about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). First, they programmed their own Chatbot using Python (a programming language) to understand AI and ML. Then, they applied this knowledge to show how mathematics is used in AI and ML with neural networks, specifically, the perceptron. The perceptron works the same way as a neuron – only mathematically. It uses inputs (weighted or given values) and tells the net’s processor that one input might be more likely to be right than others. To demonstrate their knowledge, the team used the popular video game, Fortnite, as an example. They plugged in numbers and completed calculations to show how a zombie (AI in Fortnite) determines if it is interacting with another zombie or a player before deciding to eliminate or ignore it.  The judges were truly impressed with their 4-minute video submission that highlighted their work. What a creative way for this team to showcase their learning.

·       Excellence Award:  At the end of the VEX IQ Challenge competition, one team is selected to receive the Excellence Award for demonstrating exceptional skills in teamwork, leadership, and communications; it is the competition's highest honor.  The Gear Grinders were honored to receive this award and graciously accepted it, thanking coaches Jay Clayton (mechanical), Adam Riddle (programming), Matt Wilson (programming), and Kim Hyatt (STEM).