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FORA Students Face Off in Robotics Competition for the Second Year in a Row

Over 20 Sundays built up to this moment. Over 40 times of relentlessly shuffling arms-loads of robotics tools out of a tiny closet made waking up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday feel easy. And over six months of construction, engineering and dedication prepared FORA’s Robotics students for their second face off at the VEX Robotics Competition. 

On March 9, the VEX Robotics Competitions hosted over 40 teams at Rotolo Middle School and put FORA teams’ robots to the test.

This year, FORA brought four teams, two teams consisting of

high schoolers and the other two teams representing FORA’s middle schoolers. Teams were tasked with competing against another randomly-chosen team to collect the most pyramid-shaped balls with their robots. Students earned extra points for pushing balls under a net.

For FORA student, Shareefa, this year was her second time participating in the VEX Robotics Competition. 

“I chose to continue doing the robotics program because it is fun and I like learning new things, especially robots,” she said. 

Although participants had one ultimate goal to collect the most balls from their competitor’s side, strategies varied. Some teams constructed robots to climb over a tube-like barrier while others launched balls over the tube. 

FORA’s Robotics lead volunteer, Denis Roarty, said catapulting balls over the tube was a specialty of FORA’s two high school teams. 

At the surface, the Robotics team spends months designing, building and perfecting robots. But beneath the exterior, Roarty said the Robotics Program tests students’ ability to embrace challenges and conquer them through teamwork. 

“The program really allows students to develop soft skills and team dynamics to work successfully with others and build troubleshooting skills that they can take wherever life may lead them,” he said. “Most importantly, all students are capable of learning these things.” 

And during the competition, students never shied away from a challenge. 

“One of the students couldn’t quite finish building their ball launcher before the competition, but they actually finished it during the competition,” Roarty said. “That team went on to win two rounds with it.” 

For Robotics volunteer, Jasper Morrison, his favorite part of the competition was helping students persevere when they hit a bump in the arena. 

“I really liked the trial and error part of the robotics process,” he said. “I enjoyed watching FORA students build, test, and retry each system of the robot from the wheels to ball launchers to claws and testing them out to see where they need improvement and where they work as intended.” 

Out of forty teams, one of the middle school teams came in 18th place and one of the high school teams came in 23rd place. 

Roarty noted the competition was tougher this year and the students improved as the day continued. 

“Although the team didn’t win like last year, I enjoyed being at the competition and I am glad our team worked really well together,” Shareefa said. 

For FORA students, their preparation and participation in the competition means they broke systemic barriers that attempted to prevent them from stepping foot in a classroom. 

“The real ‘joyful moment’ was, however, watching the students being able to compete with the robots they had spent months building and a few weeks driving,” Morrison said. 

Despite the challenges students face, they  constantly push forward, which is something Roarty admires each time he works with FORA students. 

“I am motivated by kids who are hungry to learn and to have experiences that so many other kids and communities take for granted,” Roarty said. 

Roarty is no new coach in the VEX arena. Trained as a civil engineer, science teacher, data analyst and software developer, Roarty helped start a VEX Robotics program about 20 years ago with his neighbor in Oak Park. 

“I know that I and others have engineering, problem solving, and project management skills that will be useful to kids in all aspects of their future lives,” Roarty said. “Programs like this give us a place to directly teach these skills in a context that is engaging for the kids.”

In hindsight, the 2023-2024 Robotics Program was no loss. In preparation for the competition, students became better leaders, teammates and gained new perspectives. 

“The thing that I notice most is how much the kids mature over the course of the year... especially our middle school kids,” Roarty said. “Not all of them, and not every week, but they have definitely become more responsible and better teammates.” 

Students left the competition with one thought in mind: competing next year. 

“I will definitely keep participating in the program next year,” Shareefa said. “I like the feeling of inclusivity. We encouraged others and everyone had a role in making the robots.”

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