R.K. Smith robotics squad headed to state

St. Charles Parish has established strong success at the high school level in robotics competition – and don’t look now, but local students are finding their way to the winner’s circle even earlier these days.

The R.K. Smith Middle School robotics team has advanced to the state championship tournament for the first time in the team’s history. The team will compete at the event on Jan. 27 at Jesuit High School in New Orleans.

The squad earned that tourney spot at a qualifier tournament recently hosted by Hahnville. To prepare for the tournament, team members designed, built and programmed a robot to perform specific tasks according to the challenge guidelines. Team members also collaboratively designed a solution to a problem and developed a presentation to showcase their solution.

During the tournament, team members participated in head-to-head challenges against other teams from around the region. They also demonstrated their knowledge via a presentation and interview with tournament judges.

The team received the “Champions Award” for earning first place in the tournament and were also awarded advancement to the Louisiana State Championships.

Team sponsor Jennifer Green said the team meets every week to work on different aspects, and that the excitement over the chance to compete at state is growing.

“They’re very, very excited. I know they’ll be eager to put the finishing touches on their robot and presentation, I’m sure,” said Green.

There are 20 members of the school’s robotics club and 10 members of the competition team – the FIRST LEGO league the team is a part of limits roster size to 10.

“Those kids meet each week and do the bulk of the programming,” Green said. “If you’re not on the team this year, you’re in the club and it gives you a taste of it, to let you know if this is something you like, that you’re really interested in, then you can go for the team next year.

“We don’t have robotics as a course here, but of course it’s offered at Hahnville. This kind of gives them a running start. Some try it and won’t do it again, some others start in the sixth grade and by eighth they’re leading their team and really love it.”

Each year, the team collaborates on an “innovation project,” in which the group tackles a challenge through creative thinking and teamwork. This year’s project theme was “masterpiece” and each group member shares what they’re passionate about.

The team came up with the idea of “Hobby Con,” a take on the popular “Comic Con” events that take place annually.

This year’s team is a fairly even mix of boys and girls and sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“They’re pretty motivated. They’ll come up to us as sponsors and ask ‘Can we meet today, I want to work on (the robot) some more,’ or ‘Let’s meet in the library and work on the programming,’” Green said. “This is all them. They’re driving the success.”

The program was revived in recent years after going dormant without a sponsor previously.

“It really came alive again from the interest of the students,” Green said. “In St. Charles Parish we put a lot of emphasis on preparing our students to be future-ready. We have a huge field growing of students who are able to take STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) courses … that interest motivated us to start the club back up.”

Its success is only good news for the STEM talent pool as a whole within the school district. St. Charles Parish has already established a very strong robotics competition base at the high school level, where both Hahnville and Destrehan programs have qualified and excelled at World Championship tournament events.

In addition to R.K. Smith, Norco Elementary recently established its own competitive team and collaborated with the DHS program to accelerate that process.
Green said that in addition to learning about coding and programming, robotics also teaches plenty about collaboration and teamwork.

“They’ll pitch an idea … maybe someone says, ‘wait, that isn’t going to work, b ut hey, let’s try it’ – and it ultimately does. It’s trial and error,” Green said. “You see them grow together as a team from the beginning, and they learn the value in listening to one another and sharing ideas.”


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