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WVU Tech robotics club set for first competition

Student from the Vex robotics team stand with Monty1.Sonmez and three members of the Vex Robotics Club stand with Monty1 in the Maker Lab.

A team of WVU Tech students is on the road after months of spending their free time huddled around computers and workbenches, designing, programming, calibrating and testing their creation. They’re part of the brand new VEX Robotics Club at Tech, and they’re not alone. With them is Monty1 – a VEX-based robot – and on Friday, March 2, they’re putting the machine to the test at the West Virginia 2018 VEX U Regional Qualifier at Fairmont State University.

The “In the Zone” competition will pit 21 schools against one another as their robots pick up, move and stack small cones on goals during the competition. Broken up into “alliances,” the teams that earn the most points for their robotic stacking precision will win a chance to move into elimination rounds and, ultimately, to the World Championship to be hosted this April in Kentucky.

Michael Blessent, a freshman computer science and computer engineering dual-major from South Charleston, West Virginia, is the founder and president of the club.

He said that team members spent months putting together the robot, and had to learn a lot of skills along the way, particularly in the mechanics of robotics and how to apply programming skills in new and unexpected ways.

Vex robotics club students work on Monty1.Students puts some finishing touches on Monty1.

He also said that the club’s four-man team is proud to have constructed Monty1 for just under $2,000.

"That's a big deal. Robotics projects can get very expensive, very fast, so that's where we had to focus on carefully planning how we were going to put it together," he said.

Dr. Ahmet Sonmez of WVU Tech’s computer science and information systems department is the organization’s advisor. In addition to learning how to plan a budget, he said that students working on the project are gaining valuable collaboration and communication skills.

"They're having an opportunity to learn about teamwork. We have a mechanical engineering student. We have computer science students. So they're working together on different parts of the project and they're becoming aware of how their different aspects are connected," he said. 

The club’s vice president Ben Johnson is from Henderson, North Carolina. The freshman computer science student said that the biggest surprise for him was how powerful the project is as a team builder.

“We have to work together to get this robot done. It’s meeting and working with these teammates that’s been so great. They are absolutely amazing," he said.

"That's one of the points of VEX,” said Blessent. “It's STEM. It's teamwork." 

Even so, the team is looking forward to the element of competition.

"It’s competitive, but it's friendly competition. It's not cutthroat. I’ve even heard of teams lending each other parts during a competition," Blessent said.

Blessent said that the team feels confident in their entrance into the world of robotics competition and acknowledges that they’ve had some help along the way.

The group worked to write a grant from NASA and Blessent was awarded an undergraduate fellowship from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The team also worked with the LaunchLab on campus. The organization provided funding to cover the team’s registration fees.

The team even worked with the help of HIVE, a project of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority.

“We came up with an arrangement with HIVE to use their maker space in exchange for helping to maintain their equipment, like the 3-D printer,” said Blessent.

Sonmez said that the experience is the kind that will set students up for success as they move into their careers.

“We found that we can find space and tools by working with our community partners. It shows that, if a student has a purpose and wants to grow, then there is opportunity here at WVU Tech,” he said.

After Friday’s competition, the club plans to start working on ways to reach out to K-12 schools and the greater community.

"Just now, we're focusing on the competitions,” said Blessent. “After that, we plan to do some community outreach mainly through local schools to promote robotics and STEM.”

Blessent said that the club is open to any student interested in robotics.