Last weekend, Mystie and I had the pleasure of going to the World Championships of the Vex Robotics Competition in Anaheim, California, where two of my cousins were competing. Simply described, the Vex Robotics Competition is a fantastic way for students ranging from elementary school all the way through college to engage in hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. Students build and program robots to perform certain tasks, which they then use in competition with other robots at varying levels of Vex competition.
Allow me to stress again – VRC is fantastic. I had known that my cousins were involved with VRC for some time, and had even seen their robots at one point during a family visit. But it wasn’t until Mystie and I walked up to the Anaheim Convention Center that I started to get really excited. Instantly, the atmosphere was intoxicating. Thousands of students and coaches rushed to make their next match. Teams furiously retooled their robots in the pit areas and crowded around practice arenas to further hone their strategies. Vendor and sponsor tents dotted the convention center floor, and Vex officials had even unveiled a sneak preview of next year’s game. There was just so much to experience – it was easily the highest concentration of robots in one area that I have ever seen, and the energy was utterly contagious.
It was amazing to see how excited all these kids were about STEM, but there are a few specific positive facets of the event that I want to be sure to point out. First, Vex provides an engaging, encouraging, and insanely fun (as far as I can tell) community for students who might otherwise consider their STEM-related interests to be “not cool,” and therefore for students who might otherwise hesitate when weighing the opportunities presented to them in the early stages of their lives. I truly believe and have been convinced in the last few years of my life that interests once considered “nerdy” are beginning to be seen as “cool,” or perhaps that being “nerdy” is “cool” in and of itself. Probably more correctly, though, is the idea that being a “nerd” or whatever else you are labeled as doesn’t matter, as long as what you’re doing makes you happy. As Wil Wheaton so eloquently put it when he was asked by a young girl how to deal with being called a “nerd”:
When I was a boy I was called a nerd all the time — because I didn’t like sports, I loved to read, I liked math and science, I thought school was really cool — and it hurt a lot. Because it’s never ok when a person makes fun of you for something you didn’t choose. You know, we don’t choose to be nerds. We can’t help it that we like these things — and we shouldn’t apologize for liking these things.
That being said, bullying still happens on a daily basis, and, largely, STEM-related hobbies aren’t part of mainstream media or advertising. Vex might not change that trend in the near future, but it goes a long way in showing students – especially young ones – that that doesn’t matter. It also gives students the opportunity to meet and build friendships with others who share their passion for STEM, and indeed, we saw several teams exchange contact information with each other throughout the day.
Second, and to take the first point even further, Vex demonstrates that it’s more than okay to enjoy STEM-related hobbies, regardless of your gender. Mystie and I saw several young girls and women on the teams assembled at the Anaheim Convention Center. As a shining example, one of the high school division champion alliances had a young woman on each of its teams, and they did not appear to be singled out or treated differently in any visible way. I can only go so far as to say that there was no visible evidence of this because I am only an outside observer, and therefore I am not privy to the actual dynamics of being involved with Vex. But what Mystie and I saw last weekend shows that Vex may someday take its place next to Goldieblox among the pantheon of activities available to young girls that don’t involve dressing up a doll in pink clothes. A “someday” is necessary here too, however, simply because the demographics of the event seemed to show that there is still some work to be done in this area. I would have liked to have seen a greater number of young women involved. We did see quite a few girls at the elementary-level throughout the pit areas, but women were underrepresented at the high school and college levels. Still, we were very happy to see those that were involved with such an inspiring STEM event.
Finally, it was impressive to see how international the competition really is. There were numerous teams from non-U.S. countries present at what was appropriately called the “World Championships.” A Canadian team was set up just across from my cousins’ pit area, and the Finals featured several teams from countries like Mexico, China, and New Zealand. I am a firm believer that seeing the world from a point of view other than your own is important, but the opportunity to meet citizens of other nations can sometimes be rare, especially for younger students. Undoubtedly, the Vex World Championships give students the chance to interact with people of all ages from other parts of the globe, with robotics acting as the catalyst. I was very impressed by how seamlessly groups of students from different countries worked together during their matches, and I think that is a testament to both the elegant simplicity of Vex’s games, as well as the fun you can have while competing.
But don’t take my word for it – check out the Vex websites at www.vexrobotics.com and www.robotevents.com. On those websites, you can find information on how the competition works, watch videos of previous competitions, and see what next year’s game will look like. If you catch the bug, you can even register a team from your own school or sign up to volunteer at a future competition!