CAPE ELIZABETH – Cape Elizabeth High School students are making their fourth trip to the world robotics championships.

CAPE ELIZABETH – This week, Cape Elizabeth High School juniors Anthony Castro and Luke Dvorozniak are in Anaheim, Calif., doing something very few students in Maine or elsewhere will ever experience – representing their school on the international stage for the fourth year in a row.

From April 17-20, Castro and Dvorozniak will face off against 15,000 students on 700 teams from 24 nations – collectively billed as “the world’s smartest middle school, high school and university students” – as they flex their mental might in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators at the Anaheim Convention Center for the VEX Robotics World Championship. For more on the team, including video of the students at work, click here.

“It’s pretty awesome, it’s hard to believe, really,” said Castro last week, as he and Dvorozniak prepared for their trip.

“This is such a great venue and experience. It’s high stress, but the boys handle it well,” said coach Tim Jones, a local mechanical and industrial engineer. “Their level of engineering and programming skills has grown tremendously over the years. They are poised well for the competition.”

Run by the Texas-based Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, the VEX Robotics Competition, named for the company from which teams purchase their parts and accessories, is said to be “the largest and fastest growing competitive robotics program in the world.” It has grown continuously since its founding in 2007 – surging by 51 percent this year alone to 7,300 teams worldwide.

The idea behind the competition is to help students master science, technology engineering and math skills while doing something fun and creative.

“We are committed to providing today’s youth with more opportunities and increased access to high-quality programs which will best prepare them to become our future innovators and thought leaders, while having fun in the process,” said the foundation’s president, Jason Morrella, in a release announcing this year’s event.

Castro and Dvorozniak say they were drawn to the VEX program almost from the minute the erector-like kits came on the market, even before the competition aspect took off.

“We both like building things,” said Dvorozniak. “We grew up playing with Legos, and these are Legos that can move and actually do things.”

“They were born this way,” said Castro’s mother Audrey, with a laugh. “I can say that literally – it’s in them to build stuff.”

Another compelling aspect of the VEX program is its relatively low entry point. While the FIRST robotics program founded by New Hampshire inventor Dean Kaman, of Segway fame, can set participating schools like South Portland back as much as $12,000 per robot, the VEX machines can be built for as little as $2,000.

Cape robotic teams are partially funded by a grant from Fairchild Semiconductor as well as Bangor Savings Bank, Kepware and LP Murray and Sons, along with booster and student fundraising to cover robotic parts, registration fees and travel costs.

With that help, Cape has been able to field multiple teams of two to four students each. In all, there are 16 students on the high school team. What makes robotics different from other athletic and extracurricular events, however, is that it’s a K-12 program. According to group adviser Evan Thayer, a math teacher at the high school, there are 85 students involved in Cape robotics, with 15 more on a waiting list. The elementary school students, he says, actually work with Lego-like sets, much as Castro and Dvorozniak did at a young age. The older students even help teach the younger ones, who graduating to VEX-level machines, which have an erector-set quality, in middle school.

Each year, VEX issues a different challenge, limiting teams to 10 motors for their robots and just one microcontroller, while also mandating that each robot be able to work autonomously for a set period of time.

In this year’s challenge, titled “Sack Attack,” four teams split into two alliances and compete on a 12-foot-by-12-foot field. Each team attempts to score points by getting their robots to pile beanbags on colored sections of a center trough.

Teams also can “de-point” by knocking their opponents sacks out of the trough – or by simply stealing them – before moving back to a home starting point at match’s end.

“It’s not battle-bots – they don’t try and destroy each other – but it really is very exciting to watch,” said Audrey Castro. “There’s no question why thousands of people turn out to watch.”

“Surprisingly, for robots that aren’t killing each other, it’s a lot more interesting that you might think,” said Anthony Castro.

Because teams have to cooperate – whether they are matched up randomly at regional events or able to choose partners at the world championship – an emphasis is placed on both teamwork and creative engineering.

“You have to think offense or defense,” said Dvorozniak’s father, Mark. “You have to ask, what’s more important, strength or speed? You have to make some compromises in the design.”

This year, Castro and Dvorozniak skipped finesse to build a robot able to out power the simple entries that tend to proliferate in the early rounds, when students are still trying to master the principals of the annual challenge.

The result was an “excellence award” – given based on overall design, competitiveness and team sportsmanship – earned at a November meet at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H. That honor automatically vaulted the Cape team to a berth in the world championship event, although they continued to attend meets as they scrapped the original design to create a stronger entry for the world stage.

Kennett High got its revenge, however. After losing its home meet, it came back to win two Maine championship rounds, blocking any other Pine Tree teams from joining Cape in Anaheim.

As they’ve prepared for this week’s trip, Castro and Dvorozniak have spent more than 12 hours a week perfecting their robot, which shipped out a few days ahead of their flight.

“We’re always here at school,” joked Castro. “We’re here longer than the teachers.”

“In past years, we’ve qualified much later in the season. This time, we spent the last few months designing a much more robust robot,” said Dvorozniak. “This is the most technically advanced robot we have built. We have pneumatics to de-score, an eight-bar linkage, which allows the robot to extend over 30 inches to easily reach the high goal, and offensive and defensive strategies built into the design.”

For the parents who are active boosters of the robotics team, the competition program matters as much, they say, as anything their children could do in school.

“It integrates what they are learning the classroom, physics and mathematics, and applies it to practical applications,” said Mark Dvorozniak. “The other thing that I think is great is that it buildings social skills. They are interviewed by the judges and have to work with other teams from all over he world, some of whom don’t even speak English.”

“From our small community, it really opens up their eyes to real word opportunities. It shows them that there are whole other worlds out there,” agreed Audrey Castro.

Of course, the real world is about a lot more than just building the best robot. Because of the teamwork aspect, the Cape team is doing something it hasn’t done in its previous three trips to worlds.

While Castro and Dvorozniak compete as “Team 56A,” freshman Federico Giovine will scout other teams, on the hunt for the best and most complementary ones with whom to form alliances during later elimination rounds.

“We have always been a team of two and are so busy competing, we’ve never had time to scout,” said Castro. “Having Federico join us will be an advantage. It would be nice if you could get the robot to do everything perfectly, but you kind of have to work with others at some point in order to win.”

However they finish at the VEX championship, both Cape juniors say their experience on the robotics team has influenced their future career choices, although both lean more toward building the robot than programming it.

“Everyone is looking for programmers, but that’s not what I want to do,” said Dvorozniak. “Writing line after line of code, that’s just boring.”

With their competition robot boxed up and already halfway across the country on its way to California for this week’s VEX Robotics World Championship, Cape Elizabeth students Luke Dvorozniak, left, and Anthony Castro demonstrates a smaller, less complex robot they constructed “in about an hour” for an earlier competition. Photo by Rich Obrey

This robot, built by Cape Elizabeth High School juniors Anthony Castro and Luke Dvorozniak, will see action at the VEX World Championship event April 17-20 in Anaheim, Calif. Courtesy photo 
With their competition robot boxed up and already halfway across the country on its way to California for this week’s VEX Robotics World Championship, Cape Elizabeth students Luke Dvorozniak, left, and Anthony Castro demonstrates a smaller, less complex robot they constructed “in about an hour” for an earlier competition. Photo by Rich Obrey

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