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Incredible Students, Incredible Prize

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Team 5225A, the E-Bots Pilons (the ∏ lons - using the symbol for Pi in the name) from Oakville, Ontario, Canada, were presented with the overall VRC World Championship Excellence Award, the highest honour in the VEX Robotics Competition World Championship that took place April 17 - 20 in Anaheim, CA. Throughout the three-day competition, the team also secured the Programming Skills Winner, the Amaze Award, the Division Excellence recognition, and the Game Design Animation Award.

Over the past five years, through E-Bots (an after-school robotics program), I have had the good fortune of working with many incredible students striving for common and mutually beneficial goals. Imagine implementing activities so captivating, that your students spend hours working on them after school for months at a time. Well, this has been my experience!

These nine students (from seven schools and four different boards) are a shining example of teamwork, passion, and commitment. Separated geographically, they met twice a week (over 6 months) with a positive co-operative attitude in preparation for this year's VEX Competition, employing web-based technologies (Skype, dropbox, etc.) to communicate and share whenever in-person gatherings were impossible.

This use of robotics in a classroom-like setting is not new for these individuals. Each has been immersed in the middle-school world-wide FLL competition (First Lego League, USFirst.org) for a number of years. In fact, three members rose to the title of 2011 FLL World Champions, as part of the award winning "The Sentinels" team (the only Canadian team to ever win this coveted award). Through this after-school experience they have come to understand the level of effort that is required to foster a successful union of soft and hard skills.

Mentoring this team has involved juggling the student's dynamic level of frustration and success. At times this is difficult with the varied skills that are required, but it is this diversity that allows me to capture the imagination of the students and keep them engaged through suggestions and reviews of the alternatives. Whether calculating angular forces or acceleration, rigging animation characters, scripting a technical presentation, or graphing encoder values to test a hypothesis (just to name a few tasks), each member first understands and accepts his challenge. Then often working alone, or in small collaborating groups, they research, develop solutions relating to their particular tasks and then proudly share their solutions with the rest of the team. When a more formidable challenge arises, they work in unison to brainstorm, formulate a solution, implement it, and prove its success. If that still does not succeed, then discussions with experts, whether through online forums or direct contact, help to relieve any frustration.

The team has also introduced to their repertoire of skills, the application of some industrial-level software products such as the Autodesk tool sets. With AutoCAD and Inventor the students were able to design, simulate, and test their creations without using a single bolt. While learning Maya, they created this year's Game Design and Animation Challenge Winner "Trough Triumph," which can be viewed on their website.

Although I could list many, the greatest joy and personal return has come from the understanding that in some way I have been an integral part of their life path decision. By widening their horizons, members of the team have discovered exciting new career possibilities and will go on to make their own positive contributions to our society.