by Cori Hilsgen
VEX Robotics students at Kennedy Community School have been busy gearing up for competition.
Robotics students competed Jan. 5 at the Sartell Sabres VEX Turning Point Tournament in Sartell. Two Kennedy teams won two awards presented by VEX judges after judges’ interviews. The sixth-grade girls team won the VEX Robotics Energy Award and the sixth-grade boys team won the VEX Robotics Judges Award.
They will also participate from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, in the Kimball Area Schools Super Mega VRC Tournament – middle school and high school at the Kimball High School in Kimball.
Currently, 41 middle school and more than 40 high school teams statewide are registered.
Kennedy robotics students also entered several online challenges for the chance to win VEX gift cards to be used to purchase equipment for the team. These online challenges are given by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation and include creating a website for your team, designing a promotional video about the school’s VEX Robotics team, an online photography challenge and what VEX means to you through photos. Both all-girls teams wrote an essay about what Girl Powered means to them.
The VEX Robotics State Tournament, which will be held Feb. 2 and 3 at the St. Cloud Convention Center, is open to those who qualify at one of the tournaments between September and January. (If a team wins one or any of the Design Award, Excellence Award, Robot Skills or Tournament Champion areas.)
The Kennedy program is for middle school sixth- through eighth-grade students and is in its second year at the school. The students begin practicing in September and meet through January.
Science teacher Alissa Keil coordinates the five VEX Team Kennedy Bolts teams consisting of 25 members and helps them learn how to design, create, build and code a robot, design a website, create a video, all while having fun doing it. Two of the five teams are all-girls teams.
Keil started the program her first year at Kennedy, with administration support.
“VEX Robotics is how we prepare our students to lead in a world that is driven by technology,” Keil said.
She said robotics is an amazing chance for students to experience building life skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It gives students a chance to practice teamwork, leadership, communication and problem- solving while applying science, technology, engineering and math to create, design and build a robot to compete in live competition against other middle school and high school VEX Robotics Teams.
Several students in the program commented on their experiences.
“I like that I have been able to make new friends,” said sixth-grader Olivia Beniek, Team Lead. “I get to use tools and I don’t usually do that every day. I like that we do other things like write Girl Power essays, and create websites and build robots. I get to work with others and I am usually an independent kind of person. It has been eye-opening for me.”
“I like that I am learning how to problem-solve,” said sixth-grader Asma Ahmed. “This is what I need to help me in my life as a student. I like working with other girls on my team. I get to build robots and I probably wouldn’t do that at home by myself. I get to be part of a team doing what is cool.”
“All the teams’ robots are different,” said seventh-grader Carl Shobe. “It is cool to see others’ ideas.”
“It is a fun way to spend time with your friends,” said seventh-grader Emily Hammond, Team Lead. “You problem-solve all the time. It is fun to problem-solve. I am good at that.”
“You’re not just building a robot, you are building a website, writing a Girls’ Power essay and using critical thinking to do it all,” said seventh-grader Sophie Birkholz.
Keil said robotics will have a significant impact on our workforce in the coming years.
“How will we best prepare our students to meet the coming challenge?” she asked. “We have our VEX Robotics Competition Team and VEX Robotics classes at Kennedy for middle school. We need to engage our students so they have the opportunity to gain robotic literacy and strong STEM skills. It has become the fourth “R” in reading, writing, arithmetic, robotics. I have seen VEX transform the students involved.”
Many of her students ask her about the type of work engineers do. She said that is an easy question to answer in VEX Robotics. Kennedy students work in teams similar to industry, while communicating, collaborating and using critical thinking skills to solve the VEX engineering challenge which is new every year. Students problem-solve for many months how to design, create, build and test an innovative robot to compete in the engineering challenge. The engineering challenge takes place in the form of a game.
Keil said this year’s challenge is even more challenging than before, and students learn by doing. This brings them closer to the real jobs that await them in the STEM field. Even if they don’t become an engineer, the life skills they learn in robotics will serve them well in any career they choose.
“Not many subjects can offer both creativity and fun simultaneously, but robotics does both plus helps students build preparedness and perseverance,” she said.
Each middle school and high school must register all of their teams which costs money. Robots are also expensive and cost around $1,200 each. Keil said the program has received a great deal of support from the local area in the form of donations.
In addition, she has written and applied for two grants and was awarded two VEX robots for the school’s all-girls teams. VEX Robotics Competitions in the St. Cloud area also require registration fees to participate. Local businesses have stepped up to help the VEX Team Kennedy Bolts pay for all expenses.
The program has received monetary donations from the Kennedy Parent Teacher Association, St. Joseph Lions Club, Rock On Trucks, Rotochopper, Stearns Electric-Operation Round-Up and also received four computers from Computers Unlimited.
“Team Kennedy Bolts are extremely grateful for all of the community support,” Keil said.
The program has also received help from the St. Cloud school district support tech Paul Novak, who allowed Kennedy students to use his Boy Scouts’ robot so the girls’ team could assemble a robot until their robot arrived in the mail. Novak also discussed designs with students.
Kennedy custodial staff Richard Romness, a civil engineer, also helped students understand how gear and torque work together on the VEX robots to help them do their job.
“I am so proud of Team Kennedy Bolts,” Keil said. “We have come so far and done so much.”
Keil, who grew up in the Kimball area, has been teaching since 1999 and has worked in the St. Cloud school district for four years. She previously taught fifth grade at Madison Elementary School in St. Cloud. She also taught at a year-round science school in St. Paul.
Both she and her husband, Matthew Keil, are very active in the district robotics program. Matthew works in technology education/career and technology education at Tech High School and is the VEX Robotics coach for both Apollo and Tech high schools.
Matthew’s students have helped answer questions Alissa’s students have had about how to make certain design ideas work.
Previously, both Alissa and Matthew worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She served as the education coordinator for NASA Explorer Schools for NASA’s eastern service region of 13 states from Maryland to New York. Keil helped K-12 teachers incorporate STEM into their classroom.
She then moved to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and worked on NASA Reduced Gravity Aircraft, working with colleges and universities from around the country who flew their microgravity projects onboard NASA’s Reduced Gravity Aircraft in a microgravity environment.
Keil additionally worked with high school and college interns to place them with scientists, researchers and engineers in various internship positions at NASA Johnson Space Center.
Many of her former student interns speak to her current science classes at Kennedy through Google Meets, from around the country, to help her inspire the next generation of learners and get them thinking about STEM.
Alissa and Matthew have three children Lincoln, 4, Abby, 6, and Benjamin, 8. Abby and Benjamin both attend Kennedy Community School.
“My students get so excited about making new discoveries each time we are in practice,” Keil said. “I enjoy seeing them learn new things and helping each other systematically test solutions during practices and during competitions. My favorite part of robotics is when students see why robotics is part of our everyday life and how they can turn a toy into so much more. I appreciate the work this community has done to support my students (and) I am grateful to live and work in St. Joseph.”
For additional information about the VEX Robotics program, visit the website vexrobotics.com/vexedr.