Students, volunteers at the heart
of robotic movement in Miami-Dade

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TERRA Environmental Research Institute students Katherine O’Reilly, left, and Julie Villamil tweak their VEX robot
while Michael Gonzalez looks on during a “pit stop” at the RoboSLAM tournament on Jan. 28 at the Miami-Dade
County Youth Fair’s Arnold Hall. They are members of the school’s WarWolf Robotics team.

MIAMI – Feb. 8, 2017 – More than 1,000 students and their robots converged recently to find out how their real-world designs would hold up at the RoboSLAM tournament at Miami-Dade County Youth Fair’s Arnold Hall.

Robotic enthusiasts from public and private school programs and after-school clubs gathered Jan. 28 in their “pit areas” stacked with tools, parts and pizza to tweak and repair their unique metallic creations that emerged from identical VEX Robotics kits. Not a single robot was alike among the 120 teams participating in RoboSLAM, with students arriving from as far away as Naples and Sarasota.

“It’s very competitive, but at the same time you will see kids from differing schools offering to help each other with a particular problem,” said Robert Gordon, organizer of the event and founder of Bots For All, a nonprofit organization started in 2013 to expose Miami-Dade students to robotics and coding. It presently provides support to 15 after-school clubs. Ransom Everglades science teacher Robert Dubard said volunteers are the glue that makes it possible for students to test their creations at competitions.

“You can see the hundreds of people here in yellow hats that mark them as a volunteer. They are parents, teachers, engineers, scout leaders and college students. It’s a wonderful community of giving people, and they make competitions like this happen,” Dubard said.

When not in the pit area or on the playing field, students roamed the hall to see what other teams were up to.

“I have made new friends by being in robotics and going to events,” said Sarai Rivera, an eighth-grader at Mandarin Lakes K-8 in Homestead. “It’s fun because girls are in robotics, but there aren’t that many girls in engineering overal.”

Her twin, Sara, said, “People are nice to us because they see we are good.”

The year-old Mandarin Lakes team ranks No. 15 in Florida and No. 105 in the nation. The school’s fledgling robotics engineering program was started by science teacher Neah Krigger, who obtained a grant from Miami-Dade County Public Schools to buy the VEX IQ Robotics kit. The program quickly grew from 11 to 20 students who learned to program, code, build a robot and brain storm on best strategies to win the annual VEX challenge.

Ransom Everglades has four robotics teams in its middle and senior high schools. Junior Shovan Bhatia Jr., who has participated in the robotics program since sixth grade, said his team already qualified for the state competition, but every tournament was a chance to improve.

VEX Robotics, based in Texas, is the largest academic robotics organization in the world. It develops the robotic kits used for competitions that culminate in a world tournament in April.