IVINS — Vista School faced off against rival schools in their basketball gym on Saturday. Except they weren’t playing basketball. They were driving robots.

(L-R): Team Big Brains, comprised of Charlie Matheson, Korbyn Cummings and Jacob Nickodemus, work on their robot before a game begins at Vista School in Ivins, Utah, Dec. 2, 2023 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

Forty robotics teams from Utah and Nevada went head to head at Vista School for the 2023-2024 VEX Robotics Competition game called Over Under. Middle and high school students showcased their engineering and programming skills as their custom-designed robots engaged in a day-long, action-packed day of battle.

Justin Blasko, director and principal at Vista High, described hosting this competition as a new terrain for himself.

“It’s my first year here at Vista, so a lot of learning for me,” Blasko said.

Blasko said he was excited to show off the facility. A brand new projector was installed to display upcoming matches on the wall. A stage room behind the gym was transformed into the “Pit Area” where teams from all schools had a place to give their robots any final tweaks.

The game features two alliances (red and blue) with two robots each. Matches start with a 15-second Autonomous Period followed by a 1:45 Driver Controlled Period. The goal is to score triballs in goals and elevate at the end of the match.

Each triball under a goal is 5 points, and in an offensive zone is 2 points. Elevation Bars are used for elevating robots, earning points based on height. The alliance with more points in the Autonomous Period receives an 8-point bonus. Both alliances can earn an autonomous win point by completing three tasks, regardless of the autonomous bonus winner.

Supported by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, this tournament is a stepping stone for the participating teams. The event, organized as part of the VEX EDR program, featured nonstop competition until awards were handed out after the elimination rounds.

Trophies for various awards were laid out on a table at the front of the gym, enticing students and parents at Vista School in Ivins, Utah, Dec. 2, 2023 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

First place went to the Dread Pirates and Marauders of Moapa Valley High School, who were on a team for the elimination brackets.

The student participants appeared locked in during game time. They quickly yet delicately loaded triballs into their bots’ shooting pockets and let the machine do the rest of the work. 

Krista Thompson, parent of Bear River High School’s Jaxon, talked to St. George News about the impact robotics have had on her son’s life.

“We convinced him to join the team and he hasn’t come home since,” she joked, then outlined the details of her son’s robotics career thus far.

“He participated in VEX IQ in 2018,” she said. “His team has qualified for worlds twice in 21-22 and 22-23 and those years he won state. Last year he was at like 850 hours (spent at the school working). Last year was 12,000 as a team.”

She described how alternative competitive outlets can be beneficial for students.

“He’s not sporty; he’s a tinkerer and engineer kind,” she said,” she said. “Traditionally sports was not a fit for him. He’s learned coding, building, communication and how to work as a team. Those skills that he’s learned are invaluable.”

Some students use block code through the VEX website, but they quickly progress to Python or C++.

“I’m pretty stoked for this competition and to see how well we rebuilt this robot from the last time,” said 17-year-old Charlie Matheson, a student at Utah Tech.

He’s one-third of the team Big Brains, which is rounded out by Korbyn Cummings and Jacob Nickodemus. 

“The code for this robot is a lot simpler than last year,” Nickodemus said. “Obviously, we used multithreading, which lets you do two things at the same time, like a script reading in parallel. There are tradeoffs, but this is generally better than blocking code that requires the previous action to be completed. Non-blocking code allows more adaptability.” 

After in-depth questioning from VEX officials about their robot, Matheson cleared up any confusion.

“It pulls balls in and it puts them out,” Matheson said. “You can’t really ask for more.

The competition season will climax in the spring when the top-performing teams from state levels will vie for supremacy at the VEX Robotics World Championship. Teams from over 61 countries will gather and offer a global platform for the brightest young minds in robotics. More information about the competition series can be found at RoboticsEducation.org or VEXRobotics.com.

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