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By Amy Bode

Captain Matthew Van Prooyen leads the Middle School Robotics team to a second place finish at State.

Matthew Van Prooyen’s dream job is to be the head aeronautical engineer at Boeing.

Matthew, who is in seventh grade, has always been fascinated with how things work: from flying drones, to disassembling RC cars and putting them back together. So robotics seemed like a perfect fit. When he was in fifth grade, Matthew signed up for Timothy Christian’s Robotics team. “It sounded like a good hobby,” Matthew admits. “But it quickly turned into something that might help me someday in my career.”

Robotics, which integrates all aspects of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – also develops leadership skills, communication, teamwork, and problem solving. Each team is tasked with designing and building a robot to battle against other robots in a game-based engineering challenge.

This year’s challenge was Star Struck. The robots, Matthew explained, had to be designed to lift giant jacks off the floor and throw them over a three foot fence. Plus, if the robot could hoist a cube that looked like a foam pillow over the fence, the team could earn bonus points. Multiple robots are on both sides of the fence, battling to throw the most jacks and cubes over.

“A competition is like the game clean up your own backyard,” Matthew explains. “Or blowing leaves into someone else’s yard—but with robots.”

Matthew, who is part of team Vortex, along with Todd Rylaarsdam, Max Van Den Berg, and Joey LaBarbara, started building and designing their robot last April. But after consistently placing last in competitions in the fall, Vortex made the decision to scrap their robot and build a new one. It took the team three weeks, but they managed to build a robot that was stronger and faster.

It wasn’t long before Vortex started to make it to the finals at competitions. “We are always adding something and always fixing our robot,” Matthew says. “There’s always something more we can do to build a better, faster robot. It’s an evolution of things. But we got really good.”

A robotics competition is like a carefully synchronized dance. Each team member has a job, but they are all focused on developing and operating the robot and beating the competition. But anything can happen. At one competition, Matthew, who usually drives the robot, burned his finger on a frayed battery wire. So he handed the controls over to Todd Rylaarsdam.

It’s this team camaraderie and dedication to perfecting their design, that earned Vortex a spot at the State Robotics competition on March 4 in Oak Park. Ninety-five schools in the state of Illinois have Vex Robotics teams. Only 26 made it to State. “I felt like our bot was in its prime,” Matthew says. “We fixed all of our problems. When they announced that we had taken second place at State, I was blown away. It was amazing.”

Even though the robotics season is over, Matthew hasn’t stopped thinking about his next robot. “I want to find the best design,” Matthew says. “I’m already thinking about designs in my head.”

Matthew’s goal for his team next year: Win state, then take their robot to the World Competition. “That’s my highest goal,” Matthew says. “We need to perfect our design. And I know we can do it.”

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