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Richmond and Petersburg students compete in CIA robotics competition at VSU
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Richmond and Petersburg students compete in CIA robotics competition at VSU

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Middle school students compete in the battlebots contest Friday, July 30, 2021. It was the final event of the CIA Robotics Academy, a week-long day camp for middle school students, at Virginia State University in Colonial Heights, Va. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

ETTRICK — As sounds of chatter and buzzing motors filled the room, middle school students gathered around a yellow mat, remote controls in hand as they prepared for competition with their hand-made robots.

Twenty students, mostly from the Richmond and Petersburg area, competed in the “battlebots” competition Friday as the weeklong CIA Robotics Academy at Virginia State University came to a close. The day camp was hosted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, a part of the U.S. Department of Energy that is focused on scientific research and health initiatives.

The CIA sponsored the program at VSU, while ORISE managed it. During their time at the camp, students learned about building and testing their robots in preparation for the skills contest.

“This program is all about STEAM” — science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, said Jennifer Tyrell, a senior project manager at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which manages ORISE. “And so we want to make sure that students have skills that will prepare them for their future careers.

“And the great thing about robotics is that you don’t just learn robotics and coding. The students are learning problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork. And those are skills that are going to benefit them regardless of what their future career looks like.”

The program is of no cost to the students, who applied to attend. Tyrell declined to discuss the cost or involvement of the CIA in detail. It held a similar event two weeks ago in Oak Ridge, Tenn., she said.

According to Tad Douce, who led the program instruction through the third-party National Robotics Challenge, the middle school years are a time when a lot of students are unsure of what they want to do careerwise, so a program like this can help lead them down the path to a job in science.

“The CIA, of course, is very interested in targeting students to get them interested in STEM and STEAM initiatives and careers,” Douce said. “So really looking at kids that maybe they’re disengaged with school, maybe they didn’t have success as a younger student, but now in middle school, it’s an opportunity to kind of think, ‘Hey, what do I want to be?’ and ‘This might be something I could do after all.’”

Tyrell said the students first had to learn how to build the robot, then they learned how to control it before they used coding to program it. The students, who worked in pairs, took their robots around obstacle courses in preparation for the tournament-style competition.

In the final competition, teams of students faced off and were tasked with making their robots pick up and move as many foam cubes into goals as they could in one minute and 30 seconds.

Alexander Lee, 13, of Dinwiddie County and Christopher Sanders, 11, of Petersburg won the competition. Alexander said it felt good to win. Their tactic was to simply knock down the tower of blocks and pick them up. He enjoyed the program and learned a lot, he said.

“I knew it was going to be fun, because I like doing robotics,” Alexander said.

Gabrielle Mackey, 11, who attends Fairfield Middle School, also said she enjoyed the program, even though the robot building was challenging at times.

Gloria Amado, 13, of Midlothian said she liked the camp and shared Gabrielle’s sentiments about it being a challenge at times. Building the robot hurt her hands, she said.

“But it was really fun,” she said. “It was definitely worth it.”

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