November 23, 2017

CSM Robotics Team Has High Hopes for Season

The Brick Girls robotics team from Barstow Elementary School put their robot through its paces during one of the later heats in the elementary competition at the 2017 LEGO Robotics Championship held April 8, 2017, at the College of Southern Maryland La Plata Campus.

The College of Southern Maryland robotics team has gone from laid back summer strategy sessions to much more intense days on the La Plata Campus as the Talons become immersed in the CSM Robotics season.

Expectations for the CSM robotics program are high this academic year. The college’s competitive robotics team, the Talons, will be following up a stellar performance from the 2016-17 season. For the fourth year in a row, last year’s team qualified for the VEX-U World Championship held in Louisville, Ky., and the team made it all the way to the semi-finals – the team’s best finish ever. Also, the CSM team left the competition with its division’s Innovate award, recognizing the team with the most innovative design feature on their robot.

Robotics team

Members of the 2016-2017 CSM Talons included, from left, Edward Gesser III, Wen Xing Lin, and Team Captain George Jenkins. Here, the members hold up the team’s awards earned at the VEX -U World Championship in KentuckyApril 19 to 22, 2017. Mr. Gesser has returned this year, but Mr. Lin and Mr. Jenkins have graduated from CSM.

“Although last year was one of the most successful years in the history of the CSM Talons, I hope that this year will be even better,” said Talons Club President Edward Gesser III, a member of last year’s team.

Any CSM student can be a member of the Talons Club, but a club member must apply for acceptance to be on the Talons team and be eligible to compete in the VEX-U competitions. Gesser noted that several experienced members have returned to the team this year, including himself, and the team has several new members already.

“As a result of the amount of new members that we have, I’m hoping that the team will be able to assign members into sub-teams, with each sub-team working on either programming, construction or driving/strategy, which will hopefully improve the organizational structure of the team,” Mr. Gesser said. “Qualifying for VEX Worlds this year will be more difficult than previous years, but I’m confident that the Talons will be quite successful this year.”

“I think this is going to be a very strong year for us,” agreed CSM Assistant Professor Ronda Jacobs, faculty adviser for the team. Associate Professor Bill Luyster is the Talons’ technical coach.

The Talons meet at least once a week (meeting multiple times a week as competitions get close) to work on the VEX-U competition project. Last year’s task for competitions was to create a robot that could pick up large foam cubes and stars and throw them over a barrier. This year’s task involves creating a robot that can pick up and manipulate cone-shaped items, some of which are heavy.

“It’s like playing chess with robots,” Ms. Jacobs said.

The Talons will compete in at least one competition and an official scrimmage in the spring semester. The team also scrimmages locally with teams once or twice each semester as it prepares for the annual world championship.

Ms. Jacobs said the Talons have an obstacle to overcome that isn’t true of some of their Worlds competitors like Purdue University and Rutgers University. As a two-year college, CSM’s team has to recreate itself each year, with little opportunity of the continuity that the four-year schools and graduate universities enjoy. “Our team really does go through a major change every two years,” Ms. Jacobs said.

Still, the team has been able to meet that challenge and even to excel.

Ms. Jacobs credits the commitment that students bring to the team and the camaraderie that is forged through its community service requirements. “They have to volunteer for at least three community events,” she said. “They work so much together, it helps to build team spirit. … It builds such a cohesive team. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

The Talons’ community service usually involves helping younger robotics programs in the community with workshops and referee assistance at competitions. The college takes the lead in organizing elementary school league competition, middle school competition and high school team events in the region along with partners that include the schools systems of Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties, which provide teacher support and equipment for their teams.

Ms. Jacobs says the relationship-building process has already begun for the coming season. “It becomes a family by the end,” she said. “But that family takes time to build. That’s what the fall is.”

Teams from the region’s middle and high schools participate in a VEX Robotics Competition (VRC) league format. Elementary and middle school teams participate in the CSM Robotics Junior (LEGO) Division competition. Also, elementary and middle school teams compete in the CSM Robotics Junior VEX IQ Challenge. Winners from the VRC and VEX IQ competitions can advance to represent their schools and Southern Maryland at the state championship and potentially the world championship in each division.

The season for those younger teams officially kicked off in Southern Maryland when CSM hosted a meeting at the La Plata Campus on Sept. 23. Simone Young, STEM coordinator for Charles County, worked with Ms. Jacobs, inviting the teachers from the region’s schools involved with a robotics team, from elementary on through high school, to the event. Competition rules were explained and Talon team members and Ms. Jacobs provided workshops for teachers and sponsors.

Students or parents connected with a school that doesn’t offer a robotics team can contact their county’s STEM coordinator to learn if there are options outside of their school for that student.

Upcoming competitions include a VEX IQ tournament on Jan. 13 at Great Mills High School; VEX Robotics Competition League tournaments for middle school teams on Nov. 11 and Jan. 6 at John Hanson Middle School and high school teams on Oct. 28 at Great Mills High School and Dec. 9 at Calvert High School. CSM will host the middle school league championship on Feb. 10 and the high school league championship on Feb. 3 at the college’s La Plata Campus.

The LEGO Championship for elementary and middle school teams will be April 7 at the college’s La Plata Campus.

The K-12 robotics competitions are supported by the CSM Foundation. This year, the program was awarded a Maryland State Department of Education grant to offset some costs of the program.

Donations to support CSM robotics programs may be made through the CSM Foundation.

For more about the College of Southern Maryland, visit its Leader member page.

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