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Lakewood Ranch elementary robotics team advances to world competition

Robert E. Willis Elementary fifth graders of Lakewood Ranch secure a spot at the VEX Robotics World Competition in May.

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The Bloopin’ Bots, a Robert E. Willis Elementary School VEX robotics team, has taken the old adage "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," to the world stage.

Despite a litany of mistakes with building and coding its robot, the Willis team persevered, placing fourth overall at the VEX Robotics Regional competition, earning the school's first berth to the VEX Robotics World Championships May 10-12 at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas, Texas.

The regional was held Feb. 19 at Lake Minneola High School in Minneola.

Many of the problems the students faced leading up to the regional were not minor.

Fifth grader Noah Johnson dropped the team’s robot, shattering half of it.

A problem with the robot’s base resulted in the robot catapulting balls that hit fifth grader Danica Hall in the face. 

“Every day the robot would break in the morning, and we would fix it in the afternoon,” said fifth grader Alisa Sabodash. “It just kept happening over and over again.”

Another time it took the team three weeks to figure out why the robot wasn’t working.

Fifth graders Danica Hall, Noah Johnson and Alisa Sabodash celebrate winning fourth place at the VEX Robotics Regional Competition. (Courtesy photo)
Fifth graders Danica Hall, Noah Johnson and Alisa Sabodash celebrate winning fourth place at the VEX Robotics Regional Competition. (Courtesy photo)

“It was miserable,” Johnson said. “The only thing I could do was just fix the robot. You couldn’t practice code. The only thing you could do was write about the struggles and the pain and then try to fix it. There was no fun. You tried to fix it, or you wouldn’t be able to compete.”

Even during the finals of the regional competition where the team competed against 35 other teams, the Bloopin’ Bots faced challenges.

Within a few seconds of trying to get their robot to pick up balls and launch them into a basket, Johnson realized the robot’s arm wasn’t going down far enough to retrieve the balls. He picked the robot up and fixed the arm, but the team had to start over, losing at least 15 seconds of the 1 minute they had to run through the course to get as many points as they could.

Hall immediately began driving through the course, picking up balls and catapulting them into baskets earning more and more points.

With only 10 seconds left, Hall decided to hang the robot from a bar to get the team’s final six points.

When it was announced Johnson, Hall and Sabodash were going to the world competition, they broke out in cheers and had a mini dance party. 

Finley Hendricks, a fifth grader and the final team member of the Bloopin’ Bots, was speechless when he read an email saying his team advanced to the world competition. He was unable to be at the regional competition because he was out of the state. 

“It took me a second to process it,” Hendricks said. 

Willis Elementary has been competing in VEX competitions for three years.

Jennifer Hubley, one of the Technology Student Association advisors at Willis Elementary, is overjoyed that one of the school’s five teams that competed at regionals made it to the world competition. 

“They’re such an awesome team and they really have been cohesive,” Hubley said of the Bloopin’ Bots. “You could tell from the first day when they sat at the table together, we were like whoa, we have big hopes for them.”

The team looks forward to the opportunity to go to the world competition where they could win a college scholarship. They’re also looking forward to missing a few days at school to go to the competition.

No matter how many times the team had moments where they thought it was the end of their robot, they remained positive and had fun.

“If we were having one of our low moments, we always made it a high one because we just made something funny happen,” Hall said. “Our team is really good together. I have a lot of fun because at the end of the day instead of stressing about TSA, (the team) always made me laugh.”

For example, the robot’s name ended up being Leron Ames because the robot kept launching balls that would hit the rim of a basketball hoop outside due to an error in velocity and coding. 

Hanna Cuervo, the other TSA advisor at Willis, could tell early on that Johnson, Hall, Hendricks and Sabodash could balance being serious about working on their robot and preparing for competitions, along with having fun.

Not only did the Bloopin’ Bots work well together to solve any problems, but they also had support from other Willis Elementary teams. The teams would exchange ideas on how to improve their robots to be able to do certain actions or how to solve problems.

“We’re all not super competitive against each other,” Hendricks said. “We made it to worlds but if anybody else made it to worlds, we would still be happy. We would be happy that at least somebody from Willis made it.”


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