VEX Robotics State Champions

The Timothy Christian VEX robotics program has some big-time momentum behind it.

Not only did the robotics program qualify one team for the VEX Robotics World Championship with others competing in the State Tournament, but participation numbers are on the upswing big-time — music to coach Tim Wierenga’s ears.

The Timothy Christian middle school robotics program had four teams qualify for the Illinois State Junior High Tournament in late February due to their skills and tournament success in the month of February.

At State (held at the Rich Township High School STEM campus in south suburban Olympia Fields), the teams competed in a qualification tournament by being paired randomly with other teams to form a two-team alliance. After ranking the teams based on qualifications, the teams chose alliances to compete in an elimination tournament. All four Timothy Christian teams competed in the semifinals.

Timothy Christian’s team 4454W Whirlwind formed an alliance with a team from Mundelein and won their semifinal match against an alliance of two Timothy Christian teams. Whirlwind faced the top-ranked alliance in the finals and beat them in a best 2-of-3 format. After splitting the first two matches, Whirlwind won the State Title by driving its robot up an incline with two targets and balancing.

“Robotics is an engineering program and the students learn about the design process. They learn about the innovation process, and the redesign and implementation process engineers go through. We hope they will learn those processes and learn about programming and how to actually do robotic building.”

That State Champion middle school quintet of Aubrey Steelman, Bella Bouman, Ben Becker, and Lucy Hoogstra punched its ticket to Worlds in Texas in May, however the team could not participate due to a conflict with the annual eighth grade Washington, D.C. class trip.

“That team was very disciplined in how they came in and practiced,” Wierenga says. “They knew what they wanted to do on the field and they were able to compete skill-wise. The State Competition had a balance beam on it and they were able to get their robot up and balance on the beam. They practiced so much and were able to do it consistently.”

Wierenga added that the Whirlwind team stood out because of its leadership. “There was another team struggling to get their robot ready for competition,” he explained. “They pitched in to help them build and pushed them a little further so they were ready for competition. They showed good leadership.”

The Timothy Christian High School trio of seniors Winston Chen and Max van den Berg (team 4454B Cyclops), along with sophomore David LaBarbera qualified for and competed at state.

Overall, it was a banner year for the robotics program, which had 17 students in the middle school program and 10 at the high school level. This is the fifth year that Mr. Wierenga has coached the robotics team.

“The high school group had two seniors and the rest were freshmen and sophomores,” Wierenga said. “It was nice to see those kids grow and get better at what they do. They are great kids who look out for each other and have a special bond.”

Wierenga recalled the middle school program only having four students two years ago.

“To see 17 students come out for robotics and stick with it is pretty amazing,” he said. “They were all newcomers and had never been in the VEX program before. Some had done other robotics, like LEGO, but this was a new process. They ate it up and loved coming to practice.”

Wierenga said the program is giving students a double-barreled dose of education, still mixed in with plenty of fun.

“We hope they can develop their STEM skills,” he said. “Robotics is an engineering program and the students learn about the design process. They learn about the innovation process, and the redesign and implementation process engineers go through. We hope they will learn those processes and learn about programming and how to actually do robotic building.

“Then there are the soft skills the kids are learning, such as teamwork and collaboration. I feel we are successful if I see the students reaching out, even at a competition, and helping other programs. Maybe they don’t have as much as we do or maybe they are new to robotics. It was neat to see the State Championship team really develop a bond with that school they formed an alliance with. That led to the State Championship because those two teams complemented each other well. They were able to upset the highest-ranked team in that competition because their robots worked well and they complemented each other.”

More importantly, Wierenga saw another championship-level trait with his program this season.

“The real goal is to demonstrate to other programs the kind spirit — doing things well with both humility and kindness and showing real, true joy in what they do,” he said. “They did a nice job with that.”

Wierenga said one of his favorite Bible passages to share with the robotics students is Philippians 2:1-4: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

According to Wierenga, robotics is more than just a hands-on STEM and engineering program. It’s one more avenue to help develop a student’s faith. “Philippians 2:1-4 not only shows students that they need the right mindset and unity in what they do, but it also instructs them to look out for the needs of and interest in others,” Wierenga said. “That passage helps them hopefully recognize and grow as an individual in how they approach robotics from a spiritual point of view.”

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