Just five years after launching its competitive robotics club, the team at Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock has taken on the world.
From May 3-5, a team of six junior high students represented Holy Souls at the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas.
“We went to the middle school robotics Olympics,” Jill Wingfield, junior high science teacher and faculty sponsor, said of the competition, which featured 688 teams from 49 states, three Native American nations and 27 countries. “These kids were on stage in front of 29,000 people, driving their robot with blaring music and spotlights shining on them.”
The club, which has 25 students divvied into four teams, participated in four competitions before two qualified for the state meet in Arkadelphia. One team won the Innovate Award for its engineering notebook and the Excellence Award, which qualified for the world competition.
“Since we’ve started, we’ve won 12 trophies,” Wingfield said. “We were invited to the U.S. Open national competition last year, our first invitation out of the state, but it was canceled due to COVID, and we didn’t get to go.”
Wingfield, who will direct the school’s newly constructed science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lab in the fall, said the robotics club and competitions teach the students as much about life skills as they do about science.
“In robotics, you hit a lot of roadblocks. Parts may fly off in the middle of a competition, and you don’t just get to walk away,” she said. “You’ve got to fix it as fast as you can and do the best you can with what you have to work with. It is totally student-driven; adults are not allowed to touch the robot. They have to know how to change the gears, how to program it. It’s built their confidence and taught them perseverance and the importance of communication.”
While the team wasn’t a finalist at the world championship, qualifying was a major milestone for the program.
Eighth-grader Carson Vogelpohl, who has been part of the club for four years, said she enjoyed competing on the world stage.
“It was a really good experience to see all the other countries and to be around so many different people that are all super smart and so talented at what they do.”
She is leaning toward a career in medicine, which she noted uses robots to assist in surgery and state-of-the-art prosthetics.
“Things are constantly advancing, and there’s a lot of technology in that field, so I think it’s super beneficial to be doing robotics,” Vogelpohl said.
“It’s really incredible to see the success that Holy Souls has achieved in such a short period of time of offering robotics,” Sharon Vogelpohl, Carson’s mother, said. “There was an initiative several years ago to really bring more STEM programming into all parochial schools. Holy Souls has made a significant investment in that and has been and quickly rewarded. Probably most importantly to me as a parent is that the kids did the work themselves, and there wasn’t some mom or dad engineer in the wings, pulling the strings.”
Harrison Brooks, an eighth-grader who hopes to join the robotics team at Catholic High School, said his experiences with the club is leading him to a career in engineering. Brooks, who helped write a program that allowed his team’s robot to work autonomously, marveled at self-driving 18-wheelers on display at the competition.
“The self-driving truck was pretty cool,” he said. “They’re trying to close the gap in the supply chain due to the driver shortage, and this technology will help.”
Principal Amber Bagby said robotics gives high-intellect students who like to build, tinker and play video games and may not gravitate to athletics an opportunity to participate in extracurricular school activities.
“This gives a unique group of kids an area to showcase their talents, be competitive and excel,” she said. “I think that marries perfectly with our STEM lab and the virtual reality that we’ve recently adopted that allows students to ‘hold’ a human heart in their hand and see how it works. It’s the same type of program that they use in hospitals prior to doing a surgery. I’m proud of this team and the fact that we’re not only preparing them for high school and eventually college but laying the groundwork for interest in their potential careers, as well.”
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