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UT Hosts VEX Robotics Tower Takeover State Qualifier

Robots and their creators took over the Alumni Memorial Building recently during the Vex Robotics University of Tennessee Tower Takeover Tournament sponsored by UT’s own VEX University robotics team, YNOT, and the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering.

The VEX Robotics Competition is a robotics program for elementary through university age students.  During the competition season, students must design, build, program, and drive a robot to complete a specific challenge, which changes annually.  Twenty-five thousand teams from more than 60 countries compete in regional Vex qualifiers in order to advance to their state or country’s championship.  The winners of these events then move on to the World championship.  The VEX Robotics World Championship, run by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation each April, has been named the largest robotics competition in the world by Guinness World Records.   It is here that students interact with industry professionals from sponsoring organizations including the US Army, Northrup Grumman, Google, Tesla, NASA, Autodesk, Dell, Mathworks, Microchip, UPS, Nordson, Nissan, Robot Mesh, Texas Instruments, and Toyota.

The University of Tennessee event began as a vision of Vex University team YNOT founder, Grant Kobes, as part of his Honors Leadership Program (HLP) coached leadership skills coursework for student organization leaders.  Students in the HLP are tasked with creating a leadership plan for carrying out a significant event that benefits the community.  Kobes spent the semester inventorying his leadership strengths and weaknesses while outlining the multiple steps necessary to make the Vex tournament a reality.  “Putting this event together required me to implement many of the leadership skills that I struggle with.  However, the event provided an opportunity for me to mobilize and enable VexU team members who naturally possess these skills to take on leadership roles of their own,” says Kobes.

Kobes founded the VexU competitive robotics team on campus his first year, building the team’s first competition bot on the floor of his dorm room.  Since then, the team has expanded to include multiple members working in their own dedicated lab space on campus and reaching out to the community in big ways.

“Our mission is to provide a practical way for middle and high school students to use the knowledge and skills they are learning in the STEM fields today to help them see the relevance of their education for tomorrow,” says Kobes.  “My leadership focus over the remaining two years at UT is to continue expanding my team’s footprint on campus through hosting Vex events, scrimmages, and workshops on campus.”  Over the past six months, Grant and team YNOT have been collaborating with Dr. John Kobza, Head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and Laura O’Shaughnessy, Assistant Professor of Practice, to increase the visibility of the ISE department for younger students using Vex robotics. “Hosting an official Vex event on UT’s campus allows us to highlight the features of the Tickle College of Engineering that would appeal to these future students,” Kobes claims.

UT’s first official Vex tournament, Tower Takeover, took place in the Alumni Memorial Building on January 11, 2020 bringing over 150 students, coaches, family and friends to Rocky Top.  Thirty-two teams from around the state competed for seven qualifying spots at the 2020 Tennessee Vex State Championship. “Our event filled in less than thirty minutes once registration went live online,” says Kobes.  Upon their arrival on campus, students and their coaches were treated to T-shirts and swag bags from the Tickle College of Engineering and the ISE department.  “We wanted to get information into the hands of perspective students and their parents,” says ISE department head, Dr. John Kobza, who helped team YNOT orchestrate the event. “These kids are already budding industrial engineers integrating technology, people, and information to maximize their performance in the Vex challenge. They could have great careers as engineers. UT is a great option for them as there are many branches of study available in the Tickle College of Engineering. I hope to see them as UT Volunteers in a few years.”

Some teams took advantage of their trip to Rocky Top by coming to UT on Friday afternoon and taking campus tours.  “Many students from technical schools, as well as rural programs around the state, were on campus for the first time in their lives,” says Kobes. “With the implementation of the new Tennessee Promise scholarship, robotics students who never dreamed they could afford to attend UT for engineering are now perfect candidates and team YNOT wants to be the first to welcome them to campus.”  “Students who have participated in Vex robotics since elementary or even middle school come to college with multiple years of experience with the engineering design process,” Kobes attests.  “They are not afraid to take risks and acknowledge mistakes.”

Fostering collaboration and teamwork is another important aspect of the Vex program as it requires students to possess skills from multiple engineering disciplines and beyond.  “From the first day, teams must begin to discuss and agree on various design iterations,” says Kobes.  “Next, CAD artists, machinists, programmers, quality/ testing assessors, and notebook documentation specialists are needed to complete the task.  Experienced Vex team members will make perfect team leaders for projects required during their college engineering curriculum,” says Kobes.

Diversity was also highlighted at the recent event. In 2017, Vex introduced an initiative called ‘Girl Powered’ in an effort to involve more females in competitive robotics.  The program offered workshops and events specifically for female students.  Since then, Vex has seen an explosion in the number of females on competition teams, as well as all-girl teams.  “For example, the Talbot, Tennessee team, Higher Calling, comprised of only two female high school students, won the Excellence Award at last weekend’s event,” says Kobes.  “These girls can hold their own against any team in our state.”

In cooperation with the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (RECF), Knox county schools, and team YNOT, 25 new Vex teams have been founded this year alone.  Team YNOT vice president and outreach director, Clare Remy, already sees positive results from their efforts. “We were honored to have 20 Vex students from Green Magnet Academy elementary school, which we mentor, serve as our field resetters during the competition,” says Remy.  “These young students will grow up knowing they belong at UT’s engineering program.”