While Valpo Robotics continues to find success in the Midwest Robotics Design Competition (MRDC) and the Collegiate Robotic Football Conference, the team wanted to provide opportunities for newer members to immediately contribute.
David Chandler ’21, project manager of Valpo VEX U, approached the Valpo Robotics Executive Board about expanding its programming into the VEX Robotics Competition. VEX holds yearly competitions for elementary through university students where they must design, build, program, and drive a robot to complete an objective. The organization boasts more than 20,000 teams from more than 60 countries. The Executive Board approved the notion and presented it to the College of Engineering to secure funding.
David had previously competed in VEX EDR (the high school division) and thought VEX U (the university division) would not only allow more current students to join Valpo Robotics, but would encourage prospective students to continue their love of robotics in college while pursuing a STEM education.
“I wanted to get our name out in high schools because I know students can find a home at Valpo, and fulfill multiple passions while they are here,” David says.
Since the current Valpo Robotics members were already busy preparing for the MRDC and Robotic Football seasons, a majority of the VEX U team was comprised of underclassmen.
“Without starting this program, I likely would not have formed friendships with the [underclassmen] on the team in the way that I have,” David says.
Joshua Mangnall ’24 established a love for robotics while competing in VEX EDR. He was excited to see Valpo Robotics represented during FOCUS and made plans to join the team during his first year. He praised the team dynamic as an integral component to their success.
“I felt like my ideas were always considered. I never felt like I was just along for the ride or just a spectator. I was at all times a part of the team,” Joshua says.
In its first contest, Valpo VEX U battled against 11 teams at Monroe County Community College in Monroe, Mich. During qualification, the team went 4–2 and ranked fourth overall. The team faced stiffer competition during the elimination, proceeding to the semi-finals, where it narrowly lost to the eventual winner, Purdue University.
In addition to the standard competition, each event includes a skills challenge where teams try to accumulate as many points as possible while alone in the arena. Valpo placed second out of all teams with a score of 65, but since Purdue earned the top score and won the overall competition, Valpo was presented the Robot Skills Champion Award. By receiving the Robot Skills Champion Award, Valpo VEX U qualified for the Robotics World Championship in its first-ever competition.
The team’s second competition at Purdue University included tougher challengers and unforeseen adversity. The team was unable to make significant alterations to improve their robots based on feedback from the first competition due to the quick turnaround. While the team was confident ahead of their first match, one of its robots was damaged when being transported into the arena. Valpo was forced to compete with only one robot for a majority of the day while attempting to repair the second between matches.
Despite the misfortune, the team ended with a qualifying record of 3–5 and placed 11th of 19 teams.
Although Valpo VEX U qualified for the Robotics World Championship, the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of the competition, VEX conducted a virtual simulation of the tournament as a way to honor the teams who had qualified. Valpo went 7–4 in the simulation and ranked 18th of 46 total teams.
While the team had a taste for success in its first season, Joshua has his sights set even higher. “With the difficulties of the first year being out of the way, we can and we will accomplish amazing things this next year. We will finish what we started this year, and we will make it to the [Robotics World Championship] once again, and this time, bring it home,” Joshua says.
David agrees with this sentiment, but also wanted to keep the season in perspective. “Regardless of our successes, the best part of our robotics team is that it brings us together to work towards a common goal. Through working on solving these complex challenges, it allowed us to grow in community and academically without being assigned a grade, and not because he had to — but because we wanted to. I am incredibly grateful to Valpo for providing the opportunity to form communities like this and for the staff who supported and encouraged us along the way,” David says.