For the Hesston and Newton High School robotics programs, 2017 has been full of success, a fact punctuated by the recent and upcoming appearances in national (and international) championship tournaments to wrap up the season.
While Hesston and Newton take part in different competitions (the former involved in VEX Robotics and the latter participating in FIRST Robotics), both have piled up accolades at a similar rate this year.
Hesston has walked away with multiple trophies at seemingly every meet on its schedule, won a fourth straight state title (in the program's fifth year of existence) and qualified teams for both the national and international championships held earlier this month. Meanwhile, Newton walked away with a first place and runner-up finish in its two scheduled tournaments this season, earning a spot in the FIRST Championship this week in St. Louis.
Neither team was lacking in drive, as Newton RaileRobotics faculty sponsor Shawn Taylor noted the team had its eyes on a regional title this season — Newton's first in three years.
"A lot of these kids were a little bit hungry for that, put in the extra time to do that," Taylor said.
Similarly, Hesston teacher/coach Trevor Foreman admitted sending one team to last year's VEX Worlds championship tournament seemed to light a fire with the rest of his students.
"It has an immediate impact in the classroom when these kids come back and talk to the others about what they saw," Foreman said. "Success breeds success. The kids who have struggled hear the stories from the kids who were successful and instead of moping about it, they're driven to match their classmates."
Members of the Hesston robotics program echoed their teacher's words. Chase Jahay made his second straight appearance at the international competition this weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. Going with his cousin last year, he was motivated to earn a return trip.
Competing against teams from around the world also set the tone for the program to push to another level in 2017 and test its mettle outside state lines — where the team was also not short on success. Now, those that joined Jahay at VEX Worlds this year (including Jeb Carlson, Collin Simpson and Ian Weaver) hope to keep that going looking ahead to next season.
"I think Worlds is an experience that we should all try to strive for," Carlson said.
All four qualifiers (all underclassmen) noted a collaborative atmosphere helped lead to Hesston's overall success this season and they expect more of the same moving forward, with some already working together on preparing bots for next year's game.
Describing the environment around the program as "infectious," Foreman admitted that even when students don't do as well as hoped, they are ready to make the adjustments necessary to come back stronger the next time around. That attitude has led to a rapid ascent, and limitless possibilities, in just a few short years that still astounds him.
"Five years ago it was unfathomable. I had no expectations coming on, but this by far completely exceeded all of them," Foreman said. "The experience that the kids are gaining, it's hard to wrap your head around because it came so quick."
RaileRobotics has been around for a bit longer, but the team is making its first appearance in the national championships since 2011. Of the 22 members of the team heading to St. Louis, none have experienced nationals before.
Team captain Abby Wenger noted seeing her brother have the chance to compete previously gave her some personal motivation to get to the tournament and while she and her teammates have high hopes this week, they also hope to pave the way for more such opportunities in the future.
"I hope that a lot more team members get to experience national in the years to come," Wenger said.
Competitive rounds begin Thursday, with the championships slated for the weekend. Taylor and the team are eyeing a spot in their divisional tournament — with anything beyond that being a "bonus." While Taylor noted it has been great seeing the team's success this year, he admitted he has been equally pleased with how that reflects on their utilization of practical skills in this competitive setting.
"I think what it shows is the ability to build a quality robot," Taylor said, "but more importantly than that it educates the student in real world learning experiences as far as application of science, technology, engineering, electronics, you name it."
With what RaileRobotics has been able to accomplish this season, Taylor is hoping to start spreading those lessons to an even younger age group — middle school students — so kids can get even earlier training in those practical skill sets to continue strengthening the program itself as well as those students' futures.
Newton's first match at nationals begins at 9:50 a.m. Thursday. To follow along with the team's progress and get more details on the tournament, visit the RaileRobotics website at www.team935.com.