On November 11, Ukiah High School’s three VEX Robotics teams began their season by competing against 30 other high school teams in the “Battle of the North II.” Two of Ukiah’s three 7-member teams reached the semi-finals, ultimately losing to the team that won the world championship VEX competition last year.
VEX is a brand of robotic components designed for middle school and high school students to expand their understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM. VEX robots require students to design, assemble and program them to perform specific duties.
This is Ukiah High’s third year competing with VEX robots and second year participating in the Battle of the North, the first California high school VEX competition north of San Francisco.
VEX competitions change from year to year, requiring students to reengineer their robots. This year’s event is called “In the Zone,” which requires teams to score as many points as possible in two minutes by using their robots to stack cones in designated goal areas located within the 12-foot by 12-foot competition arena: the higher the stacks, the higher the points. VEX robots must be designed so they fit in a cube with 18-inch sides, but can have gears and levers that expand once removed from their box.
Technology teacher Edwin Kang serves as one of two teacher-advisors for the UHS STEM Club—a blend of last year’s U-Tech Club, Science Club and the Science Olympiad. Kang oversees the VEX robotics activities.
Kang is passionate about supporting local robotics students, who he calls “underdogs.”
He said, “We are competing against well-resourced schools. They have VEX Robotics classes that take place in robotics labs. We have an afterschool club where kids meet three days a week. They have a lot of parent involvement, so much so that at the beginning of competitions, organizers often make an announcement reminding parents to refrain from fixing robots or trouble shooting with the kids. Some of those parents are engineers working for Silicon Valley companies. We are completely student run,” Kang said.
For technical support, Kang has maintained relationships with UHS alumni who participated in the VEX Robotics competitions and have continued to pursue STEM-related studies in college. Some of these alumni take time away from their university studies or spend their holiday break helping the current VEX teams figure out more effective ways to build their robots. Ukiah High graduates Rinda Shen, Izon Rai, and Mitchell Beck all continue to support the Ukiah High team.
For financial support, Kang is grateful to the Ukiah Educational Foundation. Last year, they provided a $1,500 grant to help defray the cost of tools and competition-related expenses (e.g., student entrance fees, travel and lodging). This year, the Ukiah Educational Foundation increased their grant funding to $2,800, allowing the team to purchase another VEX kit to build an additional robot. Now three teams can compete.
Kang says each competition helps inspire and educate the students. Competing against the world champion at the Battle of the North gave the students several new ideas about how to improve their robot. Ultimately, the Ukiah High VEX teams hopes to win the state championship and compete at nationals. But Kang is clear that the STEM Club is about far more than winning trophies.
“This is way more about learning how to work with others, to communicate well, to solve problems together. These kids are like a family. They work so hard—after school, on weekends. We base club membership on participation, not academic achievement. If you show up and work hard, you’re in. Last year we had about 20 students. This year we have more like 30,” Kang said.
The diversity of the group, Kang believes, is one of its strengths. The club includes boys and girls from all grades, freshmen through seniors, and the students come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Kang said he is proud of the team and looks forward to upcoming competitions at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California in December and February. He also acknowledged the parents who have supported the team. “I’m so grateful to the parents who've helped us as chaperones and driven to competitions: Judy Yin, Patty Dao, Maria Velasquez and Prabesh Rai. We couldn’t do this without them.”
In addition to high school competitions, Kang also wants to provide students with skills that will help them pursue STEM-related college studies and careers. He is working with Career and Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator Eric Crawford to create a pathway from middle school through to the university and/or workplace. Kang hopes to connect students with local companies like Retech and Factory Pipes where engineering and problem-solving skills are essential.
Kang expressed appreciation for the support from Ukiah High School Principal Gordon Oslund, and said he hopes to create a Ukiah High robotics class in the future.