March 25, 2016

Robotics team at St. Thomas Aquinas earns spot in world championship

A robotics team at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis is the only one from a Catholic school in Indiana to earn a place in the 2016 Vex Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Ky., on April 20-23. Members of the team in the first row are Bradley Basile, left, Maggie Gonzalez (holding the team robot “Fluffy Sylvester”) and Julia Dugan. Team members in the second row are Jackson Herrera, left, Grace Gerdenich and Maggie Timpe. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

A robotics team at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis is the only one from a Catholic school in Indiana to earn a place in the 2016 Vex Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Ky., on April 20-23. Members of the team in the first row are Bradley Basile, left, Maggie Gonzalez (holding the team robot “Fluffy Sylvester”) and Julia Dugan. Team members in the second row are Jackson Herrera, left, Grace Gerdenich and Maggie Timpe. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The six students from the small Catholic school on the north side of Indianapolis kept hoping and dreaming that all their efforts at the Indiana state tournament would earn them a place in the world championship.

And now that the final results were about to be announced—on a day of competition that began at 7:30 in the morning and now neared 5 p.m.—their nervousness began to overflow.

They crossed their fingers, they closed their eyes, and they shifted from leg to leg—waiting, waiting, waiting.

In the end, the wait was far more than worth it for the team from St. Thomas Aquinas School. The students’ dream became a reality as it was announced that they had earned a place in the 2016 Vex Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Ky., where they will compete with teams from as far away as China, New Zealand and Brazil on April 20-23.

At the time, the five sixth-graders and the one fifth-grader on the St. Thomas team didn’t know that they are the only Catholic school from Indiana that qualified for the world competition. At the time, they jumped, cheered, hugged and cried tears of joy. And they kept celebrating on the ride back to school, singing all the way.

“We were so excited,” said Grace Gerdenich on a recent morning at the school where she was surrounded by her teammates, Bradley Basile, Julia Dugan, Maggie Gonzalez, Jackson Herrera and Maggie Timpe. “None of us had done this before. The trophy was so tiny, but it meant so much to us.”

Actually, there is one more member of the team—their robot that they affectionately named “Fluffy Sylvester.”

“They think of their robot as a personality, not a machine,” said Sandy Hoy, a St. Thomas science teacher who coordinates the school’s robotics program. “Some of the kids wanted to name it Fluffy and some wanted to name it Sylvester, so we just combined the two. The name indicates what it’s all about—having fun. I want them to learn some things, explore some things, and go through the engineering process, but it has to be fun for them.”

Fun is definitely built into the competition as teams played a game called VEX IQ Bank Shot.

Plastic balls are set up on a ramp at one end of a small court. Team members have to drive their robot up the ramp to dislodge all those balls. Then the robot has to scoop the balls up one at a time and take them to the opposite end of the court, where they earn one point for flinging each ball over a fence and three points for shooting a ball into a basket. And they have a minute to score as many points as possible.

There are also other components of the competition, including a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project. The St. Thomas team earned a special award at the state tournament in February for its STEM project, comparing the climate-friendly use of alternative energy—wind and solar technology—to fossil fuel energy.

“One of the things the judges do is to make sure the participants can talk about the process, to make sure they’re the ones who are doing the work and not adults,” Hoy said. “Our kids did a really excellent job in fielding the questions. They were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I was really proud of them.”

The team members hope to continue their success with a good showing in the world championship.

“We’re the only Catholic school in Indiana going to worlds,” said Maggie Gonzalez. “We just want to show people we can do it.”

So far, the experience has taught them lessons that extend beyond an understanding of robotics and knowledge of programming skills.

“I’ve learned how to communicate with other people, to set goals,” said Maggie Timpe.

“Everybody on the team contributed to where we are,” said Julia Dugan. “We’ve really bonded from this experience, working together through all the ups and downs.”

Grace Gerdenich nodded in agreement and added, “If one of us wasn’t there, I don’t think we would have made it to worlds.” †

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