Six School District of Manatee County elementary school teams made it to the North and Central Florida VEX IQ Elementary Regional Championship tournament this year, making history for the district as the most teams to advance to regionals.
Magnus Tilton, a fifth grader at Robert E. Willis Elementary School, is the journalist and coder for his VEX IQ robotics team.
He spends time chronicling everything his team has accomplished during their practices and works on the coding for their robot.
“I like seeing our robot, which we put so much effort into, just working, getting all these points and doing super well,” Tilton said.
Tilton was able to see his hard work pay off when he and his team competed at the North and Central Florida VEX IQ Elementary Regional Championship tournament April 11 in Clermont.
Two teams from Willis Elementary, three teams from Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School and a team from Virgil Mills Elementary School participated in the regional championship, making history for the School District of Manatee County.
Last year only one team out of 30 that competed in the district competition qualified for regionals.
This is the most elementary teams the district has ever had competing at regionals.
Two of McNeal’s teams placed fifth at the regional championship, and one placed fourth.
A team from McNeal also received the Sportsmanship Award.
One of the teams from Willis Elementary received the Create Award, which rewards a team whose robot design incorporates a creative engineering solution to the design challenges. The other Willis team received the Judges Award, which is an award given to a team that the judges determine is deserving of special recognition.
Lexi Brielmann, a fifth grader at Willis, said she was excited to participate in regionals because before the district competition, she was worried her code and her robot wasn’t going to work well enough. She’s proud of the team’s accomplishments.
“It feels nice when I see it work because I know all the work I put into it has paid off,” Brielmann said.
During competitions, Tilton said he’s always wondering if the code will work and how many points the team will score.
“There’s so much anticipation going through my body, through my veins,” he said. “It’s great.”
McNeal Elementary’s VEX program is in its third year. Dana Townson, the VEX program advisor at McNeal, knew students in middle and high school were involved in the VEX robotics program, so she had the school move from the Lego League to VEX. The team started competing last year.
Willis Elementary started the program with fifth graders at the school last year, and one of the teams won the district competition and advanced to regionals.
Usually teams would start designing and building their robots at the beginning of the school year, but due to COVID-19, the district didn’t give permission for the schools to participate in the program until January.
The school district held a district competition virtually in which 30 teams from schools throughout Manatee County participated.
Jennifer Hubley, an advisor for Willis Elementary’s program, and Townson said because both their programs are so new, they were pleasantly surprised to see their teams advance to regionals.
“However, when I look at the amount of effort the students put in, I would expect that then because, particularly this year, they seem very much involved in the build and seeing things all the way through and looking at things from different perspectives so they can try to problem solve even before they know they’re going to run into a barrier,” Hubley said.
Townson had students in kindergarten through fifth grade watch the teams while they were practicing so the teams could practice presenting, and other students could see what happens in the VEX program.
“As soon as [the teams] get the points, [students] are jumping up and down screaming for them because they’re so excited,” Townson said. “That produces a school atmosphere of knowing what this program does. It makes kids want to do robotics next year.”
Townson included a team of fourth graders this year so she has an experienced group next year, and she plans to expand the program to include third graders next year as well.
Hanna Cuervo, one of the advisors at Willis, plans to expand the school’s program to fourth graders next year with hopes of adding other grades in the future.
Townson said the district is building up the robotics programs at the elementary school level so it can become a district wide program rather than a program that just starts in middle school.
“[Elementary schools] were definitely the missing link, so I’m proud that the whole district is on board now,” Townson said. “My hope is that Manatee County robotics will be a name everyone will know in the robotics community.”