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Towson-area students headed to international robotics competition

For the sixth time in eight years, a team from Ridgely Middle School, in Lutherville, has advanced to an international robotics competition, the VEX Robotics World Championship. The Ridgely students will be joined at the competition later this month by those from Towson and Dulaney high schools.

In all, 11 teams from seven Baltimore County Schools advanced to the international event, which is scheduled for April 19 to April 22, including those from Hereford middle and high schools, and Patapsco and Eastern Technical high schools.

The 2017 VEX competition is presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation and the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation. VEX is a manufacturer of educational robotics. This year, 1,400 teams from around the globe will compete at the event, which will be held in Louisville, Kentucky.

Competing teams must use VEX materials to build and program a robot. Each year, VEX presents a different competition game involving the robots; this year, students were given the task of making a robot that can move and hang star-shaped objects as well as a stuffed fabric cube, allowing the robots to score during the game.

Teams compete during the game in "alliances" of two teams. The alliances are created based on performance in qualifying rounds, according to Ridgely Middle technology education teacher, Greg Kallaur, who facilitates the robotics team at Ridgely, along with special education teacher Kathy O'Melia.

The Ridgely Middle team has roughly 50 members, he said, which split into smaller groups for the competition. Five students on one of those smaller teams have qualified for the worlds competition, while another nine students will accompany them for support and to represent the school.

Students on the team typically meet twice a week during the school year, according to Kallaur, addingt that, leading up to the worlds competition they have met daily.

Participating in the robotics team helps the students to build science, technology, engineering and math skills, Kallaur said.

The hands-on activity also helps students become more engaged with the concepts they're learning, such as coding. Students can learn about coding in class, but writing code and then seeing it work in the robot is "really powerful," Kallaur said.

"It kind of gives them the motivation to learn more," he added.

During the competition, students also learn how to deal with pressure, because when a robot breaks during a match they must fix it quickly before the next match, Kallaur said.

The students will leave for the competition April 18, and return April 23.

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