It almost looked like a boxing match was about to occur at Selbyville Middle School.
A referee dressed in stripes circled a 12-by-12-foot padded ring. Different teams stood at opposite corners, wired to compete in the next two-minute round.
And then their robots took center stage.
SMS hosted a VEX Robotics Tournament on Feb. 7, with 13 teams, including competitors from Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The Cape Henlopen High School team was the tournament champion, but one of the four SMS teams snagged the Design Award.
This was SMS’s first time hosting the event, but teacher and robotics coach Travis Bower said he wanted to give students competition experience before the state competition in March.
In each round, four teams compete in two alliances. Themselves no larger than 1.5 feet, the robots have 1 minute and 45 seconds to stack 9-by-9-inch cubes, or longer “Skyrise” poles, to earn points. Each round begins with a 15-second autonomous period, where the machines can stack blocks without help from a remote control. Teams with the most points win.
Standing at the edge, with video game-style controllers, one person on each team steers and one person controls the robot’s arm and claw.
There are two separate skills for robot design, said senior Victor DeGeorge: building and computer coding. The cleverest computer program can’t work if the wires aren’t attached properly.
Every team begins with the same Vex pieces, motors and wires. But they all build something different.
“They’re all using their own process of design to do the same thing,” said first-time judge Mark Sewell.
He wasn’t just judging robots, but teamwork and attitudes.
“I’m looking for collaboration, for how they’re getting ready for the next match … how they’re going to react to what happened on the playing field,” said the IRHS assistant principal.
Nearby, in the cafeteria, eighth-grader Daniel Alonzo-Tull was tightening his robot’s arm, which had fallen off mid-competition.
“It was kind of embarrassing, but funny at the same time,” he said.
He tried to move the blocks anyway, by pushing them with the robot, said teammate sixth-grader James Brett.
“What I find the most interesting is the collaboration between the kids,” said Sewell, who also used the opportunity to speak with future students about what they might want from IRHS’s new engineering program.
The existing IRHS Engineering Club students entered their own robots, too.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of stuff you didn’t expect,” said senior Hannah Davis.
Although DeGeorge joked that they earned a “surprising amount of points” in the first round, the second round was not so successful.
“You run back here and see what you can fix,” Davis explained.
You don’t have to know it all, either.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” said fellow senior Will Ransone.
“You get to meet new people at different competitions,” said sixth-grader Daniel Clark. “You can build your own robot, which I think is really cool.”
And, if you need some inspiration, “You can keep going to different competitions to see how they do it.”
Ransone encouraged more kids to try engineering.
“There are [going to be] more problems to solve,” DeGeorge agreed.