Vexed by the pandemic to competing in VEX U, UAA Robotics makes a comeback

The pandemic pulled the plug on UAA Robotics, but there are new sparks of life

Student's work on one of the robots that will be competing in this year's VEX U competition.

A robot sits motionless in a room on the third floor of the Engineering and Industry Building. It looks like it should be crawling across the surface of Mars or deployed to inspect suspicious packages by the bomb squad.

Unfortunately, how it works largely remains a mystery. The pandemic forced the club that built the machine, UAA Robotics, to pause their activities. Senior members graduated – taking their knowledge with them – and the addition of new club members was halted. 

Mya Schroder is a student at UAA, dual majoring in computer science and computer systems engineering.

Schroder joined the robotics team in fall of 2021. She said there were only around four members last year.

Becoming the club president at the end of the spring semester, she said she spent the summer thinking about the club and realized she needed to get more people to join.

Her efforts included setting up a booth at campus kickoff, reaching out to advisors to help make students aware of the opportunities on the team, and posting signs around campus.

She said she took the time to talk to everyone she knew about UAA robotics and posted information in the discord servers of various clubs and academic departments that had members who might be interested.

Around 40 people showed up to the first meeting this semester, she said, though many were just checking it out. She said the number of team members who participate regularly is now around 20.

While the numbers are impressive, “I would love more people,” she said.

Mya Schroder is the president of UAA robotics.

Around two-dozen people showed up to their meeting on Nov. 18 in room 316 of the Engineering and Industry Building.

UAA will be competing in the VEX U robotics competition for the first time this year, said Schroder. In the past, the robotics team had competed in the University Rover Challenge. A previous team built the aforementioned robot, which sits idle in the same room.

Schroder said they decided as a group at the first meeting to compete in VEX U.

Schroder said the robotics team decided to go for VEX U because it’s a simpler competition, designed to be completed in one year, whereas the University Rover Challenge is a multi-year project that requires extensive knowledge of robotics.

Schroder said most members on the team are new to robotics. She said there is more opportunity for travel with VEX U as well.

The competition will pit them against another college team. To score points their robot must move disks into an opponent’s goal, which looks like a frisbee golf basket. They can also score points by moving disks into an area on the ground and spinning a roller painted with each team’s colors.

They have a final opportunity to score some points by having their robot expand and cover as much of the arena’s tiles as possible at the end of the game.

There was a bustle of activity at the meeting on the 16th. 

Some new team members were being shown how to cut metal parts using a band saw, and a 3D printer was fabricating pulleys for the robot that will be competing this year.

The robot isn’t complete yet, though it is coming together. Before they started fabricating anything, it was designed using CAD software called AutoDesk Fusion.

In another room, away from the noise of the team responsible for designing and building the body of the robot, the programming team talked about writing the code that would be running the machine.

A member of a high-school First Robotics Competition team was also present to observe and learn from the college club. 

Schroder said she tries to make sure that everyone who shows up feels included. One of the biggest challenges, she said, is using everyone’s time wisely.

Schroder normally presents the team with a list of tasks that need to be worked on, and club members break off into groups to work on the tasks they are interested in.

In addition to the tasks of building the robots, there are “soft tasks” like working on promotional material for the club. They are also careful to document everything – partly because of lost knowledge from the pandemic and partly because of VEX U requirements.

The team will be traveling to Dallas, Las Vegas and Saint Cloud, Minnesota, next semester to compete in the VEX U challenge, and UAA will host a remote competition on Jan. 22. 

Schroder said she would like to see a return to the University Rover Challenge though they would need a bigger team. Finding and recruiting more people is still a high priority for her. She said robotics is open to anyone who is interested.

“You don’t need to be in STEM to have fun with it.”

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