By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
It’s the day before the big VEX Robotics World Championship. Grand Canyon University’s Thunderbots – the campus' robotics club – has arrived at Louisville’s Kentucky Exposition Center, ready to show off their robotics skills to the 90 or so other collegiate-level robotics teams. They were among approximately 1,100 teams, including middle school and high school clubs, itching to compete.
The team members – club president Makayla Jewell, Anna Stair, Ryan Pilon and Roman Kim – open the crate that holds the University’s competition robot, lovingly nicknamed “Tim,” and stare aghast at what they find.
“We looked to the bottom of the crate, and there was a handful of nuts and bolts. They’d come loose during shipment,” said electrical engineering technology professor Ed Koeneman, the club’s adviser.
The Thunderbots spent the day going back into engineering mode and trying to find out where those nuts and bolts belonged.
It was a harried start to a competition that would yield unexpected returns for the club, which made its debut as a startup in the 2016-17 academic year and was at the world finals for the first time. Although the team did not qualify in the regional competition in the spring, the judges and VEX Robotics were impressed enough to invite GCU to the big show.
While the puddle of loose nuts and bolts at the bottom of that crate was disheartening, the team rallied enough at the recent event to win the Judges' Award.
Koeneman said the team had gotten to know some of its fellow competitors from Scottsdale Community College and the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe and that, after the Thunderbots left the competition arena to decompress after not advancing to the final matches, “One of the guys on the UAT team called and said, ‘You guys just won an award.’”
Koeneman, who has been a judge himself at robotics competitions, said the VEX Robotics World Championship judges stopped by GCU’s booth on the first day of competition. They spoke with the team for almost 30 minutes, according to Koeneman. Most of the time, judges will stop by for a five- or 10-minute chat, so a 30-minute discussion was promising: “They were so enamored with Makayla and her team and how much they accomplished the first year.”
The award went to the club that showed exemplary effort and perseverance, team accomplishments or endeavors that might not fall under existing awards but are deserving of special recognition.
The judges “were impressed with their passion, talent, technical expertise and strength of character. … They told me that with a little more experience, they expect to see us in the final matches in the near future,” Koeneman said.
GCU won its first match, against the University of Florida, and its last match, against the University of Nebraska, finishing with a record of 2-7-1. The Thunderbots ended their world competition run in the middle of the pack. A couple of those matches were "heartbreakingly close," Koeneman said.
In two of the matches, the team competed with broken robot parts.
The Thunderbots are determined to return next year. After culling knowledge from this first year of competition they likely will return with a robot that's even stronger and can hold its own against such teams as those from China and New Zealand -- which dominated the VEX Robotics World Finals.
Even though the club did not advance to those final matches, it was a good year for the GCU Robotics Club in its first year of competition. The 2018-19 VEX challenge already has been released, with some significant changes to the VEX U (VEX University) level.
“Next year is going to be even more competitive, but the Thunderbots are up to the challenge," Koeneman said.
You can reach GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.