EC hosts robotics competition


Two teammates from the Al Wooten Jr Youth Center team competing with a team from the Steam Bot Workshop. Feb. 17, 2019. Photo credit: Jaime Solis

There was a growing hum as kids, parents, and volunteers approached the doors to the El Camino College East Dining Room early Saturday morning.

Inside, kids ran around calling for teammates, fidgeting around with plastic parts and yelling in excitement as they took turns practicing with their robots.

32 teams of elementary and middle school children from across Southern California, along with parents, coaches, and supporters, gathered to compete in the EC VEX IQ Next Level Tournament—a robotics competition.

“This is the nerd super bowl,” Karen Latuner, partnership developer at EC and a volunteer judge for the competition, said. “There are over 1000 teams participating in [the April] World Championship and these kids are very proud of being nerds.”

The event was a joint effort between the EC Robotics and Women in Technology (WIT) clubs and the Society of Women Engineers organizations (SWE).

Volunteers for the event arrived as early as 7 a.m. to set up for the 10 a.m. competition.

“It’s fun to see what the kids are doing,” Daniel Flores, computer electronics major and event volunteer, said.

Many volunteers, like manufacturing technology major and president of WIT and SWE Gesenia Grajeda, have been involved with the competitions for a very long time.

“I get fulfillment from helping the kids,” Grajeda said. “I’ve been doing this since 2017.”

The room lit up as competitions were soon underway.

The tournament was three-fold: a skills test where teams individually scored points by either controlling the robot directly or automating it, a cooperative portion where teams pair up in an effort to score points and a judging portion for the more technical and managerial aspects of building a robot.

The competition consists of robots such as this one maneuvering around. Feb. 16, 2019. Photo credit: Jaime Solis

The game itself involved maneuvering the robot around a preset field, which involved gathering and stacking hubs in specific areas and suspending the robot from a bar all within 60 seconds.

Depending on what part the team was competing in at the moment, other specific rules, such as changing the driver and resetting the robots’ position could apply.

Supporting parent of the Crestwood Street Elementary School team, Bobby Ortega said this year was a lot more technical but the kids really liked the challenge.

The teams were allotted spots on one of four rows of tables, which served as a home base for planning and repairing.

“It’s been a challenge” because it “doesn’t always work out,” Zoey Isoam, team member of Great Mind Robotics from Tarzana, said. “We had a couple of mess-ups but we will be okay.”

The team Great Mind Robotics posing with their robot. Feb. 16, 2019. Photo credit: Jaime Solis

Students, parents, and teachers were aware of the benefits of competing in technical challenges at such a young age.

“It’s been great seeing the kids work as a team,” Christelle Telesford, assistant director at non-profit organization Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, said. “It’s great for problem-solving, life skills and sparking interest.”

These benefits, often inaccessible, have been a long-time focus of many of the organizations hosting the competition.

In the past, participating in a robotics team was more restrictive; it required being in high school and having necessary funds to cover the cost of a $15,000 kit full of heavy metal parts and that participants be in high school to qualify.

Now, the kits cost $500 and use plastic parts, which allow elementary and middle school kids to participate in competitions.

The room got silent as the awards were announced, which included winners in categories like Robot Skills Champion, recognizing highest team scores, and Teamwork Champion, recognizing performance in the cooperative portion of the tournament.

“I was impressed with what I saw,” Flores said. “The kids were very professional.”

A sense of accomplishment flooded the room as the awards were handed out.

Film major and event volunteer Herschel Wright said he gets involved with the competitions in order to pay it forward.”

“I feel like my goal was achieved,” Wright said.

Team GMR watching their robot during its automated run. Feb. 16, 2019. Photo credit: Jaime Solis

The experience and effort to develop an interest in robotics and technology is the main purpose of the competition and the reason the host clubs continue to help.

“I joke around but I keep coming back,” Grajeda said. “It’s really important for us to continue to work with kids.”


Update: 4:26 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27. Video was added to article.