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The Robotics Club Strives for "Vexcellence"

Chloe Tse
May 6, 2020

This year, the HKIS VEX robotics team won the excellence award at the Hong Kong VEX Regional Championships. They also qualified, for the first time in the club’s history, to the VEX Robotics World Championships. 

At the HKIS VEX robotics club, teams design robots that suit the unique game criteria presented to them before each season. In previous years, these games included In the Zone, where teams had to stack cones on top of mobile goals and towers, or Turning Point, where teams had to manipulate field elements such as caps, flags with balls. This year’s game, Tower Takeover, challenged teams to design a robot that could effectively create high stacks with blocks and stack them onto towers.

For further insight into the inner workings of the club, Junto interviewed Jack Rong (11) and Danny Han (11), the two VEX robotics club leaders, about their experience.

Team Growth

Three years ago, the robotics club only had two VEX teams with a total of ten members. However, as the club increasingly sparked the interest of the HKIS student body, it has grown to an active club today of three teams with twelve members each. Two of the teams have achieved gender parity, a step forward for the future of women in STEM.

“I am incredibly proud of qualifying for the world championship, as it was a testament to how far we have come as a team in terms of technical expertise, but I am even prouder at how much our team has grown in terms of our membership,” Danny said. 

Learning from Failure

There are many factors at play in a robotics match, ranging from the stress the driver is under to how reliable the mechanics of the robot are at the last minute. Team members need to be prepared to address crisis situations when events take an unexpected turn.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a leader is that things are always going to go wrong at some point. No matter how hard you try, how much effort you put in, or how invested you are into something, eventually, something is going to fail,” Jack said. “It’s happened to us way more times than I’d like to remember. We forgot to charge a battery during the match, a wheel fell off our robot, or we made a strategic mistake that cost us the tournament. These things happen.”

Jack was quick to add that these failures were necessary for the robotics team to grow. “People always say to learn from your mistakes, and doing competitive robotics will make you agree so much with that statement. The engineering design process itself was created to account for these failures — it’s iterative. But if you persevere and think of ways to improve from your mistakes rather than dwell on them, you will eventually achieve success. It’s worth noting that, after all of the hardships and trials you’ve endured, success will feel better than ever before.”

The Rocky Path to Success

This year in January, the robotics team won the excellence award, which is the highest award is given out at the Hong Kong Regional Championships. “This was something I had been aiming at for a long time, probably since I started doing robotics in freshman year, so it was really satisfying to see our hard work pay off after two-and-a-half years,” Jack said. 

“I still remember going to my first competition and just wanting to do well. I think we did, but as soon as I realized that there was so much more we could aim for than just ‘doing well’, I started trying to perfect every single aspect of not just our robot, but our team as well,” Jack said. “And I think that, even though there have been so many disappointments and let-downs throughout the way, in the end, things really worked out.”

Although the VEX world championships were canceled this year, the team has still celebrated their achievements. “We did something that most people, including us, never thought we could, and we proved to every team in Hong Kong that HKIS is a team to fear!”

Future Goals

Danny mentioned his struggle of balancing the team’s competitiveness with the member’s learning. “This year, Jack and I realized that having just a small core team designing and programming the robot is not a sustainable model for the team and detracts from the goal of the club to let members of HKIS learn and experience STEM for themselves,” he said. “In this respect, a key lesson we learned is that training our members to be competent technicians and confident leaders is much more important than simply winning a tournament.” 

To achieve this goal, the leaders hosted training sessions in the areas of programming, engineering, computer-aided design, and documentation to ensure members were well-equipped with the skills needed for the future of this club.

“Next year I look forward to younger members of our club taking initiative and taking a leading role in the design, building, and programming process and I hope they get us to worlds again!” Danny added.

Why Should You Join Robotics?

Robotics reflects the challenges faced when encountering design-based problems. “The process of designing a robot mirrors the real-life scenario of working on an engineering process quite closely. The design cycle, solution-oriented mindset, and the iterative approach are all things that people in the real engineering fields use,” Danny said.

Danny also explained that the design and programming skills are all translatable to the real world. “An undersea drone is designed with the same CAD software that we use in robotics, and neural networks are coded in the same language as our robot.

“Having so many more people participate in the club means more people at HKIS are being exposed to STEM and having, in my opinion, some of the best experience high school has to offer traveling with their team to compete in robotics tournaments and making friends all around the world.”

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