Boxes of delivery pizza are piled on a table in the Talons’ room at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata Campus. Engineering students populate the room, immersed in thought, looking for parts, intently examining the structure of a half-built robot and checking information on their laptop. Strategy sessions, which have been going on all summer, are taking on a new immediacy.
The signs are all there. The CSM robotics season has begun.
Expectations are high for the CSM robotics program this academic year, particularly the college’s competitive robotics team, the Talons, which will be following up a stellar performance from the 2016-17 season. For the fourth consecutive year, the team qualified for the VEX -U World Championship held in Louisville, Kentucky, and the team made it to the semi-finals. It was the team’s best finish ever. In addition, the CSM team walked away with its division’s Innovate award, which recognizes the team with the most innovative design feature on their robot.
“Although last year was one of the most successful years in the history of the CSM Talons, I hope that this year will be even better,” said Talons Club President Edward Gesser III, who was a member of last year’s team.
While any CSM student can be a member of the Talons Club, a club member has to apply for acceptance to be on the Talons team and be eligible to compete in the VEX -U competitions. Gesser noted that several experienced team members have returned to the team this year, including himself, and the team already has several new members.
“As a result of the amount of new members that we have, I’m hoping that the team will be able to assign members into sub-teams, with each sub-team working on either programming, construction or driving/strategy, which will hopefully improve the organizational structure of the team,” Gesser said. “Qualifying for VEX Worlds this year will be more difficult than previous years, but I’m confident that the Talons will be quite successful this year.”
“I think this is going to be a very strong year for us,” agreed CSM Assistant Professor Ronda Jacobs, faculty adviser for the Talons. Associate Professor Bill Luyster serves as the Talons’ technical coach.
The Talons meet at least weekly (meeting multiple times a week as competitions get close) to work on the VEX -U competition project for the year. Last year’s task for competitions was to create a robot that could pick up large foam cubes and stars and toss them over a barrier. This year’s task involves creating a robot that can pick up and manipulate weighted, cone-shaped items.
“It’s like playing chess with robots,” Jacobs said.
The Talons will compete in at least one competition and one official scrimmage in the spring semester. The team also scrimmages locally with teams once or twice each semester as it works to qualify to participate in the annual world championship.
Jacobs notes that the Talons have an obstacle to overcome that isn’t true of some of their Worlds competitors like Purdue University and Rutgers University. As a two-year community college CSM’s team has to recreate itself each year, with little opportunity of the continuity that the four-year schools and graduate universities enjoy. “Our team really does go through a major change every two years,” Jacobs said.
Still, the CSM team has been able to meet that challenge and even excel.
Jacobs credits the commitment the CSM students bring to the team and the camaraderie that is forged through the team’s community service requirements. “They have to volunteer for at least three community events,” she said. “They work so much together, it helps to build team spirit … It builds such a cohesive team. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
The Talons’ community service largely revolves around assisting younger robotics programs in the community with workshops and referee assistance at competitions. CSM takes the lead in organizing elementary school league competition, middle school competition and high school team events in the region along with partners, the Charles County Public School System, Calvert County Public School System and St. Mary’s County Public School System, which provide teacher support and robotics equipment for their teams.
Jacobs says the relationship-building process has already begun for this season. “It becomes a family by the end,” she said. “But that family takes time to build. That’s what the fall is.”
Middle and high school teams participate in a VEX Robotics Competition (VRC) league format. Elementary and middle school teams participate in the CSM Robotics Junior (LEGO) Division competition. In addition, elementary and middle school teams compete in the CSM Robotics Junior VEX IQ Challenge. Winners from the VRC and VEX IQ competitions can advance to represent Southern Maryland at the state championship and potentially the world championship in each division.
The robotics season for these younger teams officially kicked off in Southern Maryland when CSM hosted a meeting at the La Plata Campus on Sept. 23. Simone Young, STEM coordinator for Charles County, worked with Jacobs, inviting all the teachers from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s County public schools involved with a robotics team, from elementary on through high school, to the event. Competition rules were explained and CSM Talon team members and Jacobs provided workshops for the teachers.
Students or parents who are connected with a school that doesn’t offer a robotics team can contact their county’s STEM coordinator to learn if there are options outside of their school for that student.
Upcoming scheduled competitions include a VEX IQ tournament on Jan. 13 at Great Mills High School; VEX Robotics Competition League tournaments for middle school teams on Nov. 11 and Jan. 6 at John Hanson Middle School and high school teams on Oct. 28 at Great Mills High School and Dec. 9 at Calvert High School. CSM will host the middle school league championship on Feb. 10 and the high school league championship on Feb. 3 at the college’s La Plata Campus.
The LEGO Championship for elementary and middle school teams will be held April 7 at the college’s La Plata Campus.
The K-12 robotics competitions are supported by the CSM Foundation. This year, the program was awarded a Maryland State Department of Education grant to offset some costs of this program.
Donations to support CSM robotics programs may be made through the CSM Foundation. For information, visit https://foundation.csmd.edu/.