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Best practices and teamwork for student competitions

Lessons from the World’s Largest Robotics Competition

Posted by Christoph Hahn,

Today, Jose Avendano Arbelaez shares another guest post with us. Make sure you let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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How did you get into Robotics?

This is a question that I am often asked when I attend events as part of the MathWorks Student Competitions team. The simple answer is: Well, robots are cool… The longer answer would be that after starting a career in engineering I explored the different branches of mechanical engineering and found that I was the most passionate about automating things using electronics.

But that is just my story. There are obviously many different reasons people end up being roboticists. For the generation of future robotics engineers, this decision starts as early as middle school!

Catching Up with High School Education

There are many robotics student competitions held worldwide, but it wasn’t until I started at my current role as a MathWorks Technical Evangelist that I got completely involved with them. High school institutions normally have extracurricular activities for popular sports like football and baseball, but to my surprise, it also turns out almost every high school now has a robotics program. Coming from a background in aerospace research I wasn’t aware of how much work was put into this branch of STEM education. Some of these high school programs for robotics education are centered around curriculum and sometimes teachers and educators ask us about sharing reusable courseware related to Matlab and Simulink. However, most STEM educators prepare students to compete in programs like BEST Robotics, VEX Robotics, FIRST Robotics and RoboCupJunior. Programming robots can sound like an intimidating task at first, especially for kids that are still learning algebra. So how is it that they decide to participate in robotics competitions?

Figure: Competition Event for VEX Robotics 2018 game “Turning Point”

From Video Games to Robots

Yes, video games are a great transition to robotics. Many of these competitions have students design, build and program teleoperated robots. This means that students remotely control the machines with use of a gamepad controller. This gamepad looks almost exactly like what they already use to play xBox or PlayStation so high school students are immediately captivated by the similarities these competitions have with their current interests. In fact, by talking to team members we found out that some of the students that control the robot are usually recruited because of their existing skills in video games. In fact, the gamepad controls are completely customized to the driver and can often be dynamic and change during the matches. Some of the BEST Robotics students that use Simulink to program their robots surprise us every year with new creative ways to program their gamepads to be more competitive. The Simulink Design Award Winners are always a great example of this innovation, You can check out our summary of the 2018 winning models to see how high school students program different gamepad controls for their robots to account for dynamic speeds and automation of basic robot tasks.

[VIDEO] MATLAB and Simulink PASS Competitions Hub “BEST Simulink Design Award Winners 2017”

And Back to Video Games…

Although not quite the type of video games that include slaying dragons, high school students are presented with something similar: simulations. Simulations are also referred to sometimes as virtual environments and can have realistic graphics such as the ones found in video games and provide engaging content for students to learn the basics of robot programming without the need of putting expensive robot hardware in danger. These robot simulations have started playing a bigger role in STEM education because they provide a scalable low-cost platform for schools to teach the basic design and programming skills that students need to participate in robotics competitions. We wrote an article some time back about how you can get started programming robots if don’t have one. In fact, simulations have become so prevalent in early robotics education that RoboMatter provides a virtual version of the VEX Robotics Competition every year, and students compete virtually for a chance to earn a spot to attend the finals of the VEX Robotics Competition based on the performance of their simulated robots. Much like MATLAB and Simulink support for VEX hardware, all robot simulators available provide easy integration to port the algorithms developed in simulations to actual robots. This makes the programming skills acquired directly transferable to the real challenge.

Figure: Simulations of mobile robots using Simulink

Getting to the Largest Robotics Competition in the World

This is the ultimate achievement if you are part of a high school robotics club. Guinness World Records officially recognized the VEX Robotics World Championship as the largest robot competition in the world in 2018. This event hosts more than 1000 teams, or 30,000 students, competing in different games using robots built from VEX Robotics components. Teams come from over 50 countries across the globe and the event encompasses a whole week where students, teachers and educators celebrate education achievements as a larger robotics and STEM community.

Figure: Opening Ceremony for the 2018-2019 VEX Robotics World Championship

The Lessons

By attending these events, we have been able to interact with many teachers and students to show them how they could apply some the latest trends in robotics to be more competitive. Equally, we learnt a lot from the participants of the competition. For instance, the VEX Robotics Challenge has robots play a specific game in two rounds. The first round of every match is an autonomous round, in which the robot must perform tasks without any input from the drivers. In the second round, the student drivers with the gamepads can continue controlling the robots for the remainder of the match. Programming autonomous behavior brings an extra level of difficulty and is essential for top scoring teams. These type of lessons help us create content like our Robot Autonomy and Control Workshop to help students participate in these challenges. We also get a chance to interact with the educators of the next generation of engineers and understand which technology is most relevant and how we can provide content and tools that will be beneficial to the STEM community.

Figure: Students and Teachers at the MathWorks booth learning how to program robot controllers

Getting involved with these robotics programs has showed me how the new generation of high school students acquires engineering experience that I did not get at that age. I can’t wait to see how they are going to push the boundaries of the STEM workforce once they graduate college.

If you are interested in learning more about the content we create and how we sponsor these competitions make sure to visit our webpage, and as always feel free to tell us what you think in the comments section below.