Julian, Brooks robotics teams headed to national competition
Serious Black team member Jacob Spangler, adjusts a cord on the robot. | Rebecca Bibbs~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:41AM
OAK PARK — As the snow fell fast and furious last week, officials at Percy Julian Middle School canceled all after-school activities.
But nothing was going to prevent Serious Black, one of the school’s robotics teams, from perfecting their robot.
Parent Kris Yokoo helped seventh graders Tyler Yokoo, Jacob Spangler and Bennett Tucker pack up the 18-inch cube-shaped device so they could work on it at his home with teammate Ben Pooley, who was expected to arrive later.
It’s not the first time the team has worked on the robot at home. The Yokoos even replicated the field on which the robot is expected to maneuver, according to competition rules, with green tape on the beige living-room rug.
“We’ve come a long way from last year,” said Bennett, who became interested in robotics in the third or fourth grade when his mother took him to a competition. “We analyzed our mistakes, and here we are.”
Serious Black, in fact, has come far enough that the team will compete this weekend at the U.S. National VEX Robotics Championship in Omaha, Nebraska. One of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School’s teams, The Terminators — made up of six graders Samantha Braun, Julia Dreher-Threlkeld and An Edwards, and seventh grader Mac Bell — also will travel to Omaha to compete.
Serious Black also has qualified to compete against 150 robots from around the world at the 2013 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship in April in Anaheim, Calif. However, it’s uncertain whether the team will be able to afford to attend.
Serious Black last weekend beat two middle school teams and 18 high schools teams to become champions at the Western Wisconsin Sack Attack Tournament in Menomonie, Wis.
For the national competition, the team will be allowed 45 seconds of driver control and 15 second of autonomous control by the robot, which scoops up bean bags and deposits them in a goal similar to basketball.
Jacob, who like his teammates expects to pursue a career that involves math, science and technology, said building the robot reinforces many of the skills he’s taught in school.
“Its’ a lot of measuring. You’ve got to be pretty precise,” he said. “Doing this also helps the math and science, too. And I think if we took math and engineering classes on college, this would help us, too.”
Kris Yokoo seems nearly as excited as any parent whose child pursues soccer or real basketball.
“It’s a whole new world out there from when I was growing up,” he said. “They’re building robots, and we didn’t build robots when we were growing up because we didn’t have computers.”
The Oak Park Education Foundation has supported District 97’s VEX robotics teams since Mark Pickus, co-coordinator for the program, brought foundation officials the idea in 2005.
Mary Beth Hausken, who in 2012 became VEX robotics co-coordinator for the foundation, also developed her interest in it five years ago when her son, David Hausken, was on Julian’s team.
“Even if the kids don’t go into engineering or the sciences,” she said, “they learn valuable skills that are applicable to about anything they want to do.”
These high-tech projects are hands-on, giving tweens an alternative to video games.
“In a world where kids can look anything up or push a button a laptop, this is where they are working on something and have to keep designing it, working on it,” Hausken said.
There’s no room for instant gratification. Robotics teams start building their robots in September and constantly tweak them to eliminate the bugs or make things run more smoothly.
“You see the young ones come in and say, ‘I’ll build this in a couple of weeks and drive it for three months,’” Hausken said, laughing. “It doesn’t take long for them to find out there’s more to it.”