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‘Erector sets on steroids’

Naperville, 1/11/14--Neuqua Valley junior Sameet Sapra, right, goes over data on the computer before a match Saturday during the WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition at Neuqua Valley High School. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Naperville, 1/11/14--A team practices Saturday for competition at the WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition at Neuqua Valley High School. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Naperville, 1/11/14--Neuqua Valley WiredCats 3 team members (right of announcer and left to right) Jason Han, Maanu Grover and Keshau Kapoor compete Saturday during the WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition at Neuqua Valley High School. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Naperville, 1/11/14--Teams compete Saturday during the WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition at Neuqua Valley High School. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Naperville, 1/11/14--The crowd watches Saturday's WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition at Neuqua Valley High School. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media

The strategy of a chess match mixed with the dexterity of video games is what brought 24 teams from throughout the area and their robots to the WiredCats Vex Robotics Competition on Saturday in the gymnasium of the Freshman Center at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.

All were vying for a shot at advancing to the state contest in March and qualifying for the world championships April 23-26 in Anaheim, Calif.

In the Vex Toss Up contest, teams try to score the most points by completing a variety of tasks, such as placing balls in a scoring zone or stashing balls in a tube.

In the qualifying games, two teams were randomly paired together to outscore another pair of randomly allied teams. In elimination rounds, teams form their own alliances, with the top alliance advancing.

The Neuqua Valley contest was made possible from the support of the Indian Prairie Educational Foundation, which purchased the square arenas where the actual competitions were held.

Susan Rasmus, executive director of the foundation, said she would like to see local corporations and businesses get more involved with helping students, whether through mentoring or through helping buy more robotic equipment for events such as this.

Matt Ragusa, a chemistry teacher who spearheaded the contest at Neuqua, said he was thinking about expanding the contest next year to include 48 teams, so more students from Illinois could get the chance to participate. While 10,000 teams will participate around the world, only a handful of competitions are held in Illinois, forcing teams to travel out of state.

As it stands, Saturday’s competition drew teams from Napervillr, Aurora, Bartlett, Batavia, Chicago, Downers Grove, Geneseo,Winnetka and more.

Marc Couture, regional support manger for the REC Foundation which puts on the competitions, said the Vex Robotics contests are different than other contests.

“When I was growing up we had Erector sets. We could build structures, but you couldn’t do much more than that. These are Erector sets on steroids,” Couture said.

Couture said students as young as elementary can start learning about robotics by building a moving vehicle using a basic $250 kit which includes a controller, battery and assorted parts.

The robots used at Saturday’s competition start around $1,500 and go up, depending on how much equipment is added.

Couture said it is critical for students to learn science, technology, engineering and math skills to be competitive in the world market.

“These competitions build lifestyle sets for our technology-focused economy,” he added.

Perseverance was the biggest skill set learned Saturday by the three teams from DuPage-Kane STEM, based out of the Bartlett High School Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Team adviser Gary Cotie said having Monday and Tuesday off of school put them a bit behind schedule and caused many a late night during the week.

Sophomores Kyle Cavert and Brandon Pepa, both of whom attend the academy, said they were surprised their team placed 10th after the qualifying matches, particularly since their robot was shutting down half of the time.

“It’s drawing too much power and just shuts down,” Kyle said.

After a bit of tinkering after the qualifying round, the team was able to get their robot functioning better.

Brandon said their strategy going into the finals was to try to pair up with a team whose robot worked 100 percent of the time.

Like the “Survivor” reality television show, forming alliances is critical to winning.

Neuqua Valley senior Micah Wong said his team’s specialty was collecting the smaller balls. He was hoping to join forces with a team that had a different style.

After the qualifying round, the top ranked team — Steel Pythons from Batavia — joined forces with Cobalt, also from Fox Valley Robotics, and the Autobots from Metea Valley High School in Aurora.

In the final, the Batavia teams would face off against another team from Batavia, Simply Complicated, and its ally Tyrannosaurus Vex of Downers Grove. Steel and Cobolt would prove victorious.

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