GCU sponsors Valley teens at world robotics competition

April 14, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau

In Kathryn Graunke’s house in Gilbert, the atmosphere can seem as if it’s all about robots, all the time.

The mother of four homeschooled children has two sons who are involved in competitive high school robotics, including Timothy, who spends most of his waking hours tinkering with robots. Timothy is on a team of four local students that Grand Canyon University sponsored on its trip to the 2015 VEX Robotics World Championships.

GCU helped get the Phoenix Lights high school robotics team to the VEX Robotics World Championships in Louisville, Ky., this week.  From left to right: David Hayward, Nick Ruiz, Timothy Graunke and Nathan Rossi. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Graunke)

GCU helped get the Phoenix Lights team to the VEX Robotics World Championships in Louisville, Ky., this week. From left to right: David Hayward, Nick Ruiz, Timothy Graunke and Nathan Rossi. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Graunke)

The Phoenix Lights team was the recipient of a GCU STEM grant last year through the University’s Alliance Program for Homeschool Achievement (ALPHA). The $500 award enabled the self-funded team – Timothy, 16, and teen pals David Hayward (Queen Creek), Nathan Rossi (Phoenix) and Nick Ruiz (Gilbert) – to buy some extra robot parts, win a regional tournament for the third time and advance to the international VEX tournament, which draws the top teams from nearly 500 high school competitions around the world.

However, while many of those finalists have the support and resources from school districts or well-funded clubs, the Phoenix Lights team has done nearly everything independently. GCU also covered the costs for registration and shipping the robot to Louisville, Ky., where the four-day tournament begins Wednesday.

Graunke said her family and others were moved by GCU’s offer and the surprise contribution of purple T-shirts emblazoned with both Phoenix Lights and GCU logos, which the boys thought was just about the coolest thing ever. Now they’re confident contenders for the world tournament.

“It’s been a blessing beyond what I imagined,” Graunke said. “We were excited to see GCU support young people doing cool things in STEM.”

Each boy on the Phoenix Lights team has a different role. While Timothy is the manipulator who works the robot’s arm and commands it to move objects, the others have roles related to driving the robot and managing its data. But each student has helped fund and market the team, such as going door-to-door selling car washes.

“They had it in their mind that they wanted to create a robot without any teachers, no mentors – just on their own,” said Graunke, who along with her husband, Matthew, a chemical engineer, has cultivated a STEM-oriented academic approach for their children as they teach them.

The Phoenix Lights team often blasts classic rock throughout the house when they’re working on robots. Three of the four Phoenix Lights students are homeschooled, and three of the boys competed in the West Regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition at GCU Arena earlier this month.

Daniel Cruz, GCU’s ALPHA program manager, said even the savviest science- and technology-focused parents can feel overwhelmed teaching STEM standards in homeschool environments.

The ALPHA program aims to connect parents and their teens with resources to address the problem-solving, critical-thinking skills required to succeed in high school and college STEM courses. ALPHA began last summer, though the University recently has increased outreach efforts to support homeschooling families because of the intensifying demand for K-12 STEM pathway and dual-enrollment programs.

“Just showing them attention and reaching out is causing a stir,” Cruz said. “People want to learn more about GCU. But there’s still a lot of room for growth.”

As the father of four homeschooled children, including a ninth-grader, Cruz was impressed by the Phoenix Lights team’s moxie and dedication.

“They’re just fully absorbed in engineering and robotics, and that’s the type of student that would plug right into our programs,” he said.

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or michael.ferraresi@gcu.edu.

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