Towson High robotics team assembles a winning alliance

As any successful team knows, a run to the championship of anything requires as much luck as it does skill.

Towson High School's robotics team had both Nov. 19.

The Towson High Team B combined with teams from Owings Mills and New Town high schools to win the Baltimore County Public Schools VEX Robotics Competition at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, in Timonium.

"I think it's great," said Towson High School teacher Bill Weber, a co-sponsor of the teams. "They're really applying what they've learned in classes they've taken with me and the other teachers, and they really try to put it to work.

"It's real nice to see them really collaborate and make this happen," he said.

Early in the competition, a spot in the Champion Alliance seemed out of the question for Towson High's Team B, which includes juniors Ian Begg and Reid Slater, sophomore Tyler Olive and freshman Thomas Watson.

The competition required teams to build and program robots for an event that involved putting different sized spheres and cylinders into goals.

Early in the event, a series of problems — from motor issues to a cylinder getting stuck on top of the robot's moving arm — led to an uninspiring 3-5 record for Team B.

But for those competing, fixing things on the fly is as much fun, and challenge, as building the robots themselves.

"That's what I really like about the competition," said senior Mathew Ridge, who was on Towson High's other group at the competition, Team A. "It's an environment where you need to continuously solve the problems that pop up in order to do well."

Ultimately, Team B members believed they had fixed their problems and put on a good performance toward the end of the qualifying round.

In the qualifying round, the top seven seeds got to pick two teams to join their "alliance" for the championships. Towson's Team A was selected early, but was derailed later in the competition.

But Team B was the first pick of the second round, putting it in a position to be aligned with Owings Mills High School's "Project Mayhem," the top-ranked team after qualifying, and second-ranked New Town High School.

"I was actually kind of shocked when they came and asked us," Begg said of Owings Mills' invitation. "I didn't think we deserved it at that point."

But as good talent evaluators do, the Owings Mills team looked at Team B's performance, not its record in the early rounds.

Team B and its "Champion Alliance" of Owings Mills and New Town ultimately qualified to participate in the VEX World Championships next April in Anaheim, Calif.

The invitation is a high honor, but members are concerned that they won't be able to make the trip due to a lack of funds.

The entry fee for the World Championships, which includes parts for the robot they'll build, is $750, and sending four students to California for a week could cost as much as $1,000 per person, which may put the event out of the team's price range.

The group has already had its yearly fundraiser — a T-shirt sale. But members said the student body was more interested in the football team's shirts than the robotics team's, and the only reason that the group made money off the shirts was because teachers bought them.

"We made a little bit of money, but we need to sell quite a bit more to go to California," Weber said. "Any way we can offset that cost would be a great thing."

Begg said the school allows just one fundraiser a year, so short of selling more shirts, it may take a grant or donation to the team to help lift itself from what Ridge called "the bottom of the totem pole" at Towson High. Still, team members remain hopeful they can think of something the fly, as it did during the competition.

"If we were to go to the world championships, it would put us in a better standing in the school," Begg said. "They'd realize we're really doing something with this."

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