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An International Robotics Competition Lands In Louisville

Matthew Pardue

In the Kentucky Exposition Center's North Wing, Tyler Sweckard demonstrates a remote-controlled robot about the size and shape of a small microwave oven. It’s been designed to catapult a foam ball toward a goal.

Sweckard is a junior at John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown and a member of the EC3 team that also includes students from Central Hardin and North Hardin high schools.

His and hundreds of other teams in the VEX Robotics competition got their design instructions and materials from the robotics education company a year ago. Since then, Sweckard's group has put in more than 500 hours on the project.

“What we’ll do is document every single thing we do with the robot, and our team captain actually, she actually has three hardback notebooks just completely filled and documented with everything they’ve done with the robot throughout the course of the year," he says.

Thousands of students from more than 40 countries are in Louisville this week for a world competition of robot-building called VEX Worlds. It's the culmination of a year-long effort by teams of young people to design, build, program and troubleshoot robotic devices.

VEX Worlds is organized by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, a nonprofit designed to build students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Educators have intensified their focus on those areas as job prospects have boomed in recent years.

REC Foundation President Jason Morrella says as much as anything, though, the competition is about having fun.

“The kids don’t think they’re in a science class," Morella says. "They think they’re in a sport, they’re building a toy or a huge complex robot. And what they’re really in is the most fun science class they’ve ever been in.”

Just a short distance from the Hardin County group, there’s a team from New Zealand.

Levi Chapman’s team traveled 30 hours from the Auckland suburb of Glenfield for the competition. He describes their robot thusly: “You have your intake at the front that will suck up the balls, and you’ve got a feeder and then very fast it will throw them onto the goal.”

Led by coach David Aston, Glenfield captured an overall excellence award in last year’s competition.

"I facilitate all the activities, I facilitate the purchase of equipment," Aston says. "I facilitate making sure that the things that the kids want can happen. When in doubt, I say ‘yes.’”

VEX Worlds competitions include students from elementary age through college, and the event has become quite a draw: Last year, about 800 teams participated. That number is approaching 1,100 this year.

Among the new faces is a team from northern Haiti made up of two elementary school girls, a chaperone and their mentor, Alexis Samson. The younger participants at VEX Worlds are judged not on the robots they produce but on their teamwork.

“We enjoy this activity because it’s an educational activity," she says. "So the students like it, and they enjoy it. When they get here they feel enthusiastic. They like it a lot.”

VEX Worlds formally kicked off Thursday afternoon with an Olympics-style parade of nations. It concludes Saturday with the awards ceremony. The competition is free and open to the public.

The Kentucky Exposition Center will host the event through at least 2019.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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