Robot-Building by Design: VEX Robotics Competition

There are no shortcuts to building a robot.

“We start in September,” says Frank Heijmans, Department Head of Science at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS). “They [the students] have already been through two competitions. This will be their third one. The students who are really committed are probably working three to four days a week after school for a couple of hours. They are putting in a lot of time working on their robots to compete.”

The 2020 iDesign Central Toronto VEX Robotics Competition takes place at SMCS for the sixth consecutive year. The day-long event convenes more than 300 students from middle school and high school, divided into 70 teams.

VEX Robotics Competition at St. Michael's College School.

St. Michael’s College School will be hosting the VEX Robotics Competition for the sixth straight year in 2020.

The SMCS contingent includes 30 students from Grades 8 to 12, including first-time participant Ben Fabella, a Grade 10 student.

“I am mostly looking forward to seeing our robot competing against the other teams,” he says. “And to seeing the other teams, how they build their robots, and how they perform.”

Fabella says that while he has always enjoyed technology and computers, he did not join the VEX Robotics Club at SMCS until being invited by friends this year. 

“Overall, our team has spent time since October building our robot for this year’s tournaments. After each tournament, we work to update our robot in areas that we performed weak in. We usually stay after school until around 4:30 p.m.”

SMCS students building robots in a VEX robotics class.

One of the veterans of this competition is John Redmond, a Grade 12 student.

“I have participated in around 10 VEX robotics competitions over my time as a part of the club,” says Redmond. “In the competitions it is always amazing to stand up at the front driving a robot you have spent months working on with a team that you have got to know so well over that time.”

He adds, “the biggest challenge is coming up with your initial design. As a team you have to look at many options to solve that year’s problem and weigh the pros and cons, but once you get working on the physical build, it goes rather smoothly—assuming planning was done correctly.”

A robot built by an SMCS student in his VEX robotics class.

This year’s challenge is called ‘Tower Takeover’. Played on a 12 by 12-foot field, it is comprised of two teams who compete in matches. The goal is to secure the highest score by placing cubes in towers or by scoring a cube. Seventy teams are whittled down to 16, with an elimination round eventually determining the winners.

“At the end of the day, it’s about developing these students’ interests and seeing students grow as people,” says Heijmans, a chemical engineer-turned teacher. “It comes down to that. They understand more clearly how to work as a team. The technical development is also right up there, so if they choose to go into engineering they are actually that much more prepared.”

SMCS students building robots in a VEX robotics class.

Salvatore Papia, a Grade 12 student, is preparing for his ninth VEX robotics competition.

“Every win and loss in the competition is a learning experience to show us what works and what does not, and it helps our team improve for our next one. I enjoy improving and working on skills that will help me in my engineering career,” he says.

“From when I was a kid, I enjoyed taking things apart and figuring out how they work, and I also enjoyed building LEGO. When I heard about VEX Robotics, I immediately joined because it involved some of the many things I enjoyed,” says Papia.

VEX Robotics Competition at St. Michael's College School.

File photo: SMCSTV - 2019


70 Teams competing
30-40 Student and alumni event volunteers
30 SMCS student participants
10 Number of years SMCS has participated
6 Number of years SMCS has hosted
1 SMCS team qualified for the world championships

The 6th iDesign Central Toronto Robotics Competition takes place Saturday, February 8, 2020 in the St. Michael’s College School gymnasium.