Our international adventures as robotics champions

Maree Timms

During my 30 years of Secondary Science and Maths teaching, I have taught in a highly-multicultural school in Melbourne, where the newsletter went home in eight different languages; I worked at Outward Bound Ullswater in England; I also taught in Bursa, Turkey, before returning home to Australia (in a high school near Darwin, Humpty Doo - yes, this is a real town!). I then taught in a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhemland in the Northern Territory for 10 years. I have now moved back to my home town of Wangaratta, Victoria.

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Images courtesy of authors. Brett (front-left) and Maree (front-right) with their Galen VEX squadmates. Images courtesy of authors. Brett (front-left) and Maree (front-right) with their Galen VEX squadmates.

Many schools struggle to get parent / community engagement right. The nature of teaching sees us thrown into a classroom with 20 or so students; when a bell goes, we move on to another class, and then to another. Our teaching is dictated by the bell. Unless collaborative time is factored into our busy days, we tend to work in isolation; sharing a few ideas as we pass by each other, or when we get a chance to meet at breaks over casual conversations. So if we find it difficult to find collaborative time with each other, how on earth can we find the time to get parents and the community engaged?

This is where our VEX Robotics programme hit the mark! We had no idea of the impact it would have on our students, school, parents and community.

At a nursing home.

One day on Twitter

In March 2016 I saw a tweet (yes, I love Twitter) with two students talking about the “values of VEX Robotics” - as a passionate educator with a strong interest in STEM, I was hooked and needed to know more.

Cut to August 2016: We had DATTA Vic (The Design and Technology Teachers Association of Victoria, based in Melbourne) run a teacher CPD session here at Galen Catholic School in Wangaratta, Victoria. In attendance were teachers from three other schools, a few students, a parent, couple of lecturers from the local TAFE (Technical and Further Education), and a couple of community members who were involved in an IT business. Although not all attendees were teachers, they were keen to hear more about VEX Robotics. DATTA Vic gave us permission to invite whoever we wanted. This was advantageous, as I knew I did not have the coding or robotics skills needed to get a programme like this up and running, so we would require expert help.

Being interviewed at our STEM expo.

Out of the frying pan...

We were all fascinated by the robots, the building and the designing. I knew the theory and coding behind it all was beyond me, but I could see so much potential for my students. Plus, looking around in the room there were a number of “experts” I could call on, if needed. Before the end of the session, we were asked if we were interested in hosting the Australian National VEX Robotics Championships. Wow, out of the frying pan and into the fire!

So off I went to the principal, and asked for support. He was enthusiastic, as was the head of the Science faculty - so we bought our first VEX EDR kit. We selected six students, ones we knew were keen, and knew a bit about robotics and coding. We had two months to prepare for the National Competition.

Chatting with a member of the local parliament.

An engaged community

The community involvement and interest this generated was immense. We forged tremendous links between parents and the local community, as they all volunteered to help run the Championships. We had parents in our school hall, putting together competition fields, putting out tables for teams to work on, and we had training of volunteer judges (parents and community members). We had the “big wigs” from VEX USA and VEX New Zealand join us - they were impressed with the way the community got on board, and how smooth the event ran.

The VEX competition.

The beautiful thing about VEX Competitions is that teams from different schools need to network and form alliances in order to succeed. Due to the way the alliance selection happens, our Galen Team and one of the other local teams were lucky enough to compete in the National Final alongside two strong city teams. It was dream come true, to see the “underdogs and locals” be selected by these two top city teams to compete alongside them in the final. It was a win-win for our small town of Wangaratta.

Presenting coding to Primary pupils.

The media attention and success of our teams saw VEX Robotics grow in the region. We now have 15 VEX Robotics teams in the region. Galen went from six students and one team to to 22 students and three teams. This success saw us hold the VEX National Championships again in December 2017.

Presenting at Girls In STEM day.

At these Championships we had 12 months of VEX under our belts. Plus, we gained a new teacher, Brett Weber, who taught Robotics and Coding. Brett was our secret weapon; an “inhouse” expert on our side. He was able to take the students to the next level, and their coding skills improved greatly. This set them up well for the 2017 National Championships. Once again, the community got behind us, helping us to organise the biggest VEX Robotics event ever held in Australia. We had people from everywhere in the local community volunteering to get involved.

In the community.

Then, magic happened… Our Galen teams WON three awards on the day, including the coveted ‘Excellence Award’ - beating the four-time Aussie Champion team to the title. The winning of this award meant that we earned the right to represent Australia at the World VEX Robotics Championships in Louisville, Kentucky.

Raising the funds

It was amazing, we were all so excited, then reality hit - we would have to raise $30,000 in three months to get to the USA. This is when the local VEX community engagement kicked in to another level. We also had our six-week summer holidays, just to throw in an extra challenge.

In the community.

A fundraising BBQ at Bunnings hardware store.

The community support has been overwhelming. To everyone’s amazement, we raised all of the $30,000 required in just two months, with the vast majority - $27,000 - of it raised locally. The population of our town is 24,000. We fly out on 22nd April 2018.

Visiting a nursing home.

Our Vex team has been out in the community, raising awareness, going to retirement homes, Primary schools and the like. They have even mentored Primary students over a summer holiday Robotics and Coding holiday programme:

YouTube link

The local media coverage, meanwhile, has been amazing: https://mareetimms.wixsite.com/vex-worlds/blog

YouTube link


Just the beginning...

The VEX Robotics programme has ticked so many boxes - our students have become role models, mentors, public speakers, robotics and coding experts - not to mention representatives of Australia at the World VEX Robotics Championships! The community has been glued to and part of their journey. Everyone has enjoyed the ride, and it is only beginning.

YouTube link

You can follow our adventures at the VEX Worlds and beyond: www.facebook.com/galenVEX.

Note: We are not representatives of VEX Robotics. We get no “kickbacks” - we just love the opportunities it has provided our students and the way it has engaged the local community.

Presenting to parents and Primary pupils.

This article was co-written by Brett Webber:

I am a Secondary ICT and English teacher who has been teaching for just five years. What an awesome but somewhat blurry first five years they have been, though. After completing my first degree in Communication and Public Relations, I dabbled in event management and customer relations for a few years, honing my communications skills. Throughout this time, my desire to educate the next generation of Australians and provide them with the unique opportunities kept growing. Fast forward to 2018: I have completed my teaching degree and am now refining my teaching skills and at my second school. I am lucky to be working as part of a team of teachers who share the desire to help our students thrive and provide them with unique experiences. This shared desire is what lead me down the VEX Robotics path, with my colleague Maree Timms and a group of outstanding students who have the world at their feet.

Brett (left) and parents at a fundraising BBQ.

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