INDIANAPOLIS — Pick up the cone, and put it on the pedestal.

It sounds simple, Greenfield-Central High School senior Cole Lacy said; but it takes months to figure the most efficient way to complete the task. Weeks of planning and programming, days of tinkering, to transform a pile of rubber bands and bits of metal and screws into a robot fir for the mission, she said.

Along the way, the young engineers learn about problem-solving, teamwork and communication while they hone the engineering and technology skills they hope will one day shape their careers.

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Hundreds of robots — and the kids who created them — invaded Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Saturday for the Indiana VEX Robotics state championships, where students, including Lacy and his friends, showed off their innovations and tested them against their peers’.

Twelve Hancock County teams were among the nearly 300 teams from across the state to qualify for the event — the culmination of months of hard work, practice and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Though some ended their seasons at the statewide event, four local teams — one from Greenfield-Central High School, one from Doe Creek Middle School and two from Sugar Creek Elementary School — are headed to a world championship contest in Louisville later this spring.

Fostering a love of STEM subjects is at the heart of VEX Robotics program’s mission, according to the group’s website.

Started by two engineers from Texas who found a passion mentoring high school kids interested in the engineering field, VEX Robotics is the world’s leading provider of educational and competitive robotics products. More than 22,000 schools in 40 countries across the globe use VEX products to run their robotics programs, giving aspiring engineers the tools they need to grow their creativity and critical thinking skills.

Teachers and coaches like VEX because it gives more kids hands-on experience building a robot, Greenfield-Central High School head coach Nick Kerkho said. Where some companies have large groups of kids build one big robot, VEX challenges schools to put together several small teams that each build a robot. This ensures every students plays a big role in the building and programming, Kerkho said.

In Indiana, the number of schools using VEX products and building VEX robotics teams is booming, organizers of Saturday’s contest said: there were 70 VEX teams in the state during the 2015-16 school year; that jumped to more than 900 in the 2016-17 school year.

High school, middle school and elementary school teams competed in separate divisions Saturday, each using the robots they built to complete a set of tasks assigned to them by the judges.

Throughout the more than 12-hour day, elementary and middle school students presented research projects that accompanied their robot creations, and high school students visited with peers from across the state.

The events are loud, crowded and chaotic. Rows and rows of kids, some in costume, dash about the playing field, some carrying piles of mechanical pieces as they head to compete, practice with their bot or watch their friends.

Meeting people from different schools and learning the tactics they used is one of most fun aspects of the competition, Lacy said. He’s also enjoyed getting to know younger students, even elementary and middle school kids, who have an interest in robotics and sharing his love for the hobby them, too, he said.

For parents, the fun of robotics comes in seeing the excitement in the kid’s faces and the life skills they develop by being part of the team.

The friendships kids build through robotics are ones that last for years, said Julie Stoeffler, a teacher at Greenfield-Central High School, who has a son of the team.

The science and math skills kids pick up in robotics are clear, but VEX also teaches kids to be better thinkers, to reach out of their comfort zone and build lasting friendships — things she’s seen develop in her own son during his four years in robotics.

Kalynne Brookens Newcomb of New Palestine had two children — one with the New Palestine High School team and one with the Sugar Creek Elementary School team — participating in Saturday’s event. She watched anxiously, a camera clutched in her hand, as her son, Bradon, manned the controls, ordering the Sugar Creek robot around the playing field and moving colorful rings from one post to another.

Brookens Newcomb said her boys always had an interest in science and math and problem-solving. Both found puzzles and Legos exciting pastimes, and when robotics became an option for an extra-curricular activity at school, they jumped on it. And it’s helped her kids grow, she said, growth she’s also watched in their young friends.

“They have just bloomed,” she said of her sons’ teams.

Moving on up

Twelve Hancock County robotics teams were among the nearly 300 Indiana teams compete in the VEX Robotics state championship competition at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday, showing off their science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Four local teams — one from Greenfield-Central High School, one from Doe Creek Middle School and two from Sugar Creek Elementary School — are headed to a world championship contest in Louisville in April.

Doe Creek team, the Omega Bucks,

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or