Happy Valley Middle School students shine in high school robotics competition

John Thompson • Dec 5, 2017 at 10:05 PM

ELIZABETHTON — It was an obvious mismatch when teams from Happy Valley Middle School competed against 19 high school teams in an event in Chattanooga last Saturday.

Overcoming the mismatch, only one high school team, from Brentwood Academy, was able to keep up with the Happy Valley middle schoolers.

Happy Valley Middle School sent five teams to the Vex Robotics competition in Chattanooga on Saturday. Team H, Team V, Team M, Team S and Team X all did well. Team V not only qualified for the state championships to be held in March, but also qualified for the national competition to be held at Council Bluffs, Iowa, later this year.

Another remarkable fact: this is only the second year that Happy Valley has been in robotic competition.

The three members of Team V are: Zach Stephens, Clara Smith and Jackson Taylor. They built a robot following the rules of the Vex Robotics competition. They were so confident of the abilities of the robot they created that they named it after a god.

They named their robot Hephaestus, after the Greek god of fire, metalworking, stone masonry, forges and the art of sculpture. Hephaestus had a palace on Mount Olympus, where he made many clever inventions and automatons to work for him.

Each of the five teams from Happy Valley have built their own robot and all five competed in Chattanooga. Team V had a fortunate start. The competition works by having having teams form alliances to work together against other pairs of teams.

Stephens and Smith said that in the first round, the pairings and alliances are determined by chance, with alliances formed by draw. Team V was fortunate enough to be allied with a top team from Brentwood Academy in the first round.

That alliance finished first in that round. Team member Stephens told his teacher, Mike Dorsey, that the team was doing so well that he predicted it was going to qualify for state competition.

At the end of the day, the Brentwood team finished first and Happy Valley Middle was in second. According to the rules, Brentwood had the opportunity of selecting its ally. Brentwood could have selected any of the high school teams, but it chose the middle schoolers from Happy Valley.

Happy Valley was the only middle school team in the competition. Smith said the high school competitors were friendly to the middle schoolers from the start, offering them encouragement and making them feel welcome. But Stevens and Taylor said by the end of the day the tone had changed. They said the high schoolers were asking for advice on how to make their robots better.

The Happy Valley teams also got a lot of ideas from the competition on how to make their robots more competitive in the various matches. Some of the modifications Hephaestus may undergo before the state competition could include pneumatic cylinders and improved sensors.

Smith said such modifications are possible thanks to the support the five Happy Valley teams have received in this, the second year of robotics competition at the school.

She said last year the classes were just learning about robotics competition. The class had no money to invest in building robots. In preparation for this year, the class began raising funds from local businesses and individuals. They found many willing supporters.

Among the organizations that responded was the East Tennessee Foundation, which provided a $13,000 grant to be used over two years. She said all the community support helped the class compete with the well-funded programs like Brentwood.

Like most of the students in Dorsey’s class, the members of V Team are considering a career in technology, science or engineering.

Smith mentioned aerospace engineering as a possible career. Taylor said he prefers to work with something that has a lot of moving parts, like a robot, rather than just building a structure, but he said he has not made up his mind on what he will do.

After all, he and Smith and Stevens are just in middle school.

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