Noah Jackson, a Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School fifth grader, was focused.
With a controller in hand, he was having his robot zip around the Vex IQ competition board trying to push small orange pucks out of the dispensaries and across a bar to the other side of the board to earn points.
The pressure was mounting as the clock kept counting down.
Jackson gave the controller to his teammate fifth grader Hayden Laning, who worked to keep pushing as many pucks across the board.
The clock finally hit zero.
Jackson and Laning were relieved.
Jackson, Laning and their teammate, third grader Penn Reynolds, make up the Flaming Cheetos, and they shared points during their competition with Robert E. Willis Elementary School’s Kreative Kaos, which consisted of fifth graders Landon Cuervo and Zachary Danalu.
The Flaming Cheetos and Kreative Kaos were among 160 teams from 37 School District of Manatee County elementary and middle schools participating in the districtwide Vex IQ competition Feb. 14 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
Jennifer McManis, the STEM coordinator for the School District of Manatee County, said the Vex robotics program started in the district five years ago in a few elementary schools.
It has since ballooned to include 27 of the 33 elementary schools within the district.
For middle school, the Vex program also is one of the Technology Student Association competition categories. Middle school students began competing again last year after the pandemic.
McManis’ goal is to have the Vex program available from elementary through high school.
“My goal is to grow it so that every school has that opportunity,” McManis said. “Every year we’ve grown to a point where now it’s almost unsustainable.”
To accommodate the growing number of teams participating in the Vex program, McManis said the district will host smaller tournaments for 30 to 40 teams at a time and then have a districtwide event to showcase the Vex program.
Noah Johnson, a sixth grader at Braden River Middle School, said it’s been difficult adjusting from the elementary level of the Vex program to the middle school level.
With Vex being a part of Braden River Middle’s TSA program, Johnson said he and his teammates have had to adjust to not only focusing on Vex but other TSA projects as well. He said advisors also have more students and projects on which to provide guidance so students have to take more ownership of their projects and work harder at problem solving.
Johnson and his teammates, sixth graders Danica Hall, Dominic Ramos and Liam Rankin, built five different robots before settling on the one that would best compete.
Johnson and Hall, who competed with their team from Willis Elementary School last year as fifth graders at the Vex Robotics World Competition, said this year was a transitional year for them as they adjusted to the rigor of the middle school level competition and middle school in general. Although they hoped to qualify for the state competition this year, they said there was room for improvement on their robot.
“I feel like next year, we’re going to dominate,” Hall said.
McManis said the Vex program teaches students about the engineering design cycle, which fosters creativity, teamwork, collaboration and more. Students learn about engineering and coding.
“They’re learning skills they can apply right in the workforce,” McManis said. “They can go into various engineering degrees in college. They can go into IT because they will have some of the coding background. There’s a lot of positions that we groom them to go into.”
For many students, the robotics program is a highlight of their school day.
Gene Witt Elementary School fifth graders Sofia Laubacker, Connor Willats and Eddy Thomas, can’t wait to work together each week on their robot.
“I wish we could just do it all day,” Willats said.
In their first year participating in Vex, Laubacker, Willats and Thomas — the Donut Squad — have enjoyed making modifications to their robot and seeing their improvements.
Laubacker said it’s an adrenaline rush when she’s driving the robot and seeing the points they score.
“When you do something incredible, you just feel so happy,” she said.
Now, the Donut Squad has qualified for the North/Central Florida Region Vex IQ Elementary State Competition March 11 in Clermont, Florida.
The team is looking forward to seeing what their robots can do against top competition.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.