STEM-minded students converge at Quinnipiac for 2024 VEX IQ Robotics Competition

STEM-minded middle schoolers from across Connecticut converged at Quinnipiac for the 2024 VEX IQ Robotics Competition Full Volume on January 6, when student-built, snap-together robots vied to take their teams to the state championship.

School of Computing & Engineering Director of Career Development John Bau said this was Quinnipiac’s inaugural year of hosting the competition, working in partnership with CT STEM Academy. The non-profit enrichment academy supports the mission of STEM among Connecticut students in grades K-12, positively impacting 10,000 students per year.

Bau shared that Quinnipiac and CT STEM Academy have built a great relationship throughout the years.

The academy regularly taps Quinnipiac students for staff recruitment. Founded in 2011, the academy hosts K-12 STEM practice events and programs at its 3,000 square-foot facility in Wallingford, Connecticut.

“When they outgrew their space for their tournament, they reached out and asked if Quinnipiac could make this happen,” said Bau. “This is the first official collaboration between the two groups, even though the relationship has existed for a very long time.”

CT STEM Academy founder Christopher Stone said Quinnipiac provided an incredible venue for middle school students to experience the competition.

“It’s amazing, because we’re not at our home facility where we’re practicing, so there is an immediate specialness to being on a college campus and partnering with the computer science and engineering departments,” said Stone. “For us at CT STEM Academy, it takes hosting a tournament to the next level by having the ability to showcase our event on a larger and broader stage.”

The VEX IQ Robotics Competition Full Volume played out in several locations in the Recreation and Wellness Center on the Mount Carmel Campus, where spaces were converted to allow teams to test themselves, practice, and compete.

The Burt Kahn Court was the arena for the exciting Teamwork Challenge held on 6’ x 8’ rectangular fields. During 60-second matches, two robotic teams from different schools worked as an alliance to score points. Robot skills matches involved scoring as many points as possible. Driving skills matches focused on driver control. Autonomous coding skills matches were scored for control with limited human interaction.

Facing the field in front of awaiting teams, family and fans, students raced their robots to rack up points by grabbing, elevating, pushing or otherwise manipulating various-sized blocks into goals. Teams could gain bonus points for uniformity and/or height of scored blocks. Additional points were also scored for successful attempts to park robots in the Supply Zone.

Event judges reviewed team notebooks and robot designs to help determine winners of awards for excellence, teamwork, robot skills, Design and the judges award. Based on scores and award achievements, teams could qualify for the upcoming state competition and may go on to qualify for world championships in Dallas, Texas.

CT STEM Academy advisory board president Mark Davis assisted as a judge in the Burt Kahn Court. Davis said bringing the middle school teams and their families together at Quinnipiac elevated the excitement of the day.

“I think it’s fabulous. The Connecticut STEM Academy is about kids and this is a stepping-stone. There’s good synergy here,” said Davis. “It’s a win-win. Quinnipiac is a great partner and this is a great place to be.”

CT STEM Academy Lead Facilitator Justine Tynan ’16, MA ’17, traveled back to her Bobcat alumnus home with four middle school teams from Orange, Connecticut.

“Our girls’ team has never been to a college setting before, and the first thing they said is, ‘It’s huge!’,” said Tynan.

Tynan’s Quinnipiac degrees include a bachelor's degree in history and master's degree in teaching.

“Because the teams are all student-run, I can help them out with problem-solving as a teacher and not an engineering major,” Tynan said. “They are in charge of doing all of the engineering and coming up with all of the ideas. They all start with the same pieces and they all get the same challenge, but then it’s whatever comes out of their brains to accomplish that challenge. I think it shows them all of the possibilities of STEM and of what you can achieve.”

The work of CT STEM Academy with middle schoolers is helping to make gains in retaining and growing STEM interest among a pivotal age group, said Jennifer Michalek, math and computer science consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education.

“We know that STEM fields in the workforce are a huge area of need moving forward,” said Michalek. “When we look at the STEM fields, we find, particularly with young women, it becomes around middle-school age where they start to fall off, in terms of interest. Seeing so many teams here that have young women on them, we’re hoping that they continue on.”

Seventh-grader Elisia Dwyer of the Gigabots from Meriden, Connecticut, said her team’s time in the Burt Kahn Court arena helped to inform them on what works for their robot and what works for other teams. In 2023, Dwyer helped the Gigabots to win the state championship. She also traveled with her team to compete in the world championship in Dallas, Texas.

“It’s a little stressful in the arena but it’s fun,” said Dwyer. “Our strategy with this challenge is to always go for the four blocks that are lined up first. We have wheels that help the robot spin into them and then a kind of elevator that lifts them up.”

Mom Jennifer Dwyer said she sees how the Gigabots benefit from the competition’s goal of working collaboratively with other teams.

“I love how this competition is run because they’re not competing against each other. They’re learning to identify strengths in each of their robots and how to get the most points together,” she said.

Stone said collaborating with Quinnipiac to bring the 2024 VEX IQ Robotics Competition Full Volume to campus further strengthens a very good working relationship. He noted CT STEM Academy generally hires two to four Quinnipiac students every year, is a long-standing participant of the School of Computing and Engineering’s annual career fair and also partners with Quinnipiac Future Teachers Organization for student volunteer support with academy programs.

“We’re super excited to partner with Quinnipiac for this event,” said Stone. “We are located a 15-minute drive from here, so it’s great to expose middle school kids, especially, to the potential in these types of careers. We know that middle school age is where we can hook and engage kids in computer science and engineering potential careers and/or college career tracks.”

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