This past weekend (4/23-27/2018) The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation held is annual VEX Robotics World Competition in Louisville, Kentucky.  Thousands of middle school, high school and college students, representing hundreds of the best robotics teams in the world descended on the Kentucky Exposition Center for three days of intense rivalry.  Yes, with teams from over 40 countries, including China, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and Mexico, this is truly a world competition.  Last year, a team of Syrian refugees was given a warm welcome and tons of support.  This year Puerto Rico was the focus.

Make no mistake about it, the competition was fierce, going well beyond building a great robot, also encompassing sophisticated strategies, social game play and a deep understanding of the game rules so teams can decide how to gain an advantage by bending a rule to the breaking point.  Each match was played with two two-team alliances, assigned for the qualification rounds and then chosen for the remainder of the tournament.  Successful teams know how to work with their alliance partners and ultimately ally with other teams which complement their strengths and weaknesses.

However, all this intensity is saved for the field.  Universally, teams want to beat each other on the field, not off it.  The degree of collaboration off the field is remarkable.  Teams help each other out, trade parts, discuss coding techniques and even post robot designs online.  After the day’s competition, bull sessions go on long into the night.  Gender is irrelevant.  To a person, they are nice, respectful, smart, out to have fun and have zero interest in their parents’ advice.  Adults are there to pick up food, root from the stands and chauffer the teams from hotels to the Expo Center.

I attended with my son’s team for the second time this year and was once again blown away and inspired by these young people setting an awesome example for the rest of us.  If you have children with a STEAM orientation, I highly encourage you to check out VEX.  It has some attributes that make it stand apart from other robotics organizations, including a dedication to creating a level playing field for teams from any socio-economic background.  One of the top teams this year consisted of three first-timers who worked in a barn where they hand-filed components and produced an amazing and beautiful robot.

On top of it all, they put on a well-coordinated, polished and high-spectacle event with incredible production values.  The game MC’s, referees, judges and volunteers are professional, efficient and keep the energy high.  The final event in the Freedom Dome feels like a WWE production, complete with lasers, fire effects, giant screens and pulse-pounding music.  Each and every student is made to feel like a rock star!

I credit Paul Copioli, Karthik Kanagasabapathy and the rest of the VEX Robotics and REC teams for promoting an environment that is not only serious and challenging but also fun and welcoming for all!  Keep up the great work!

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