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Burnaby school robotics club headed for championships after years-long hiatus

Mechatronics teacher says teams 'came from nowhere' to qualify in first year back to competition.

When the Burnaby school district’s robotics club tackled its first tournament in November after about a three- or four-year hiatus, things didn’t go so well.

“We did very poorly,” said Coach James Zhuang, not mincing words.

But that dismal start will make the appearance of two Burnaby teams at the VEX Robotics B.C. mainland championships in Langley this weekend that much sweeter, according to Zhuang.

Based out of Alpha Secondary School, the district’s mechatronics and robotics program hadn’t sent a team to a tournament in years.

Zhuang, who now teaches the program, said he resurrected the club – dubbed The Swarm – when he came to Alpha from the Coquitlam school district in September.

He likes the dynamic nature of the competitions compared to, say, a science fair project.

“It’s just a fun, more hands-on sort of activity versus the theoretic stuff that you typically do at schools,” he said.

Every  spring, after the VEX world championships in April, organizers announce a new skill-testing game, and students around the world spend the whole year designing, building and perfecting machines to play the game better than their opponents.

“You have the whole season to continue to modify, to improve and then take what you learn and apply it to actual robots,” Zhuang said.

This year the game involves robots picking up rings (which look like donuts) and getting them into tall mobile goals. Another task sees the robots trying to lift a heavy object and place it on a teeter totter without toppling it.

Each competition also features an “autonomous” component, which tests the robots’ ability to run by itself, driverless, with programming alone.

At the first competition of the year, Zhuang said The Swarm's robots were heavy, overly complicated and kept overheating, so the teams scrapped the original designs and started from scratch.

Team 502X (David Dorland, Scott Favaro, Nathan Heyde, Thomas Lane,  Ethan Shin, Alex da Palma) worked on its robot’s performance in the autonomous component, adding sensors that earned a judge’s award and a ticket to the provincials for its consistent driverless performance.

Team 502Z (Ahmed Badwy, Ji Sung Smith, Sam Jamieson) qualified on its strength in the driver-controlled part of the competition, according to Zhuang.

“They learned a lot. These guys came from nowhere,” he said of the two teams.

They will now face the best 32 teams from the B.C. mainland (Vancouver Island has its own championships) during an all-day robotics showdown Sunday at the Langley Events Centre.

Their goal is to qualify for the world championships in Texas in May, according to Zhuang.

“That would be quite an experience for a rookie team,” he said.  

For more information about VEX Robotics competitions, visit www.vexrobotics.com/competition.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
Email cnaylor@burnabynow.com