Aquabots Conquer the World

In case you haven’t heard, robotics are taking the world by storm and some local fourth grade students are leading the pack. Oak Grove Lower Elementary School robotics students from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, recently returned from the 2018 Vex IQ World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, the world’s largest competition hosting over 400 elementary teams from 30 countries. The AquaBots, an all-girls robotics team from Oak Grove, came back to Mississippi winners of the World STEM Award for their STEM project and presentation on Rosie the Riveter and robotics used on naval ships. This makes nine local, state and world awards for this dynamic group of ladies.

The AquaBots team is comprised of Madelyn Courtney, Mica Shemper and Elliot Walsh. When picking a name, they decided to find something in common between the four of them (other than their obvious love for robotics). Since they all love anything to do with water, the name “AquaBots” was decided. AquaMom Michelle Courtney serves as the coach, educator, team cheerleader and resident stylist for the team. She is also Madelyn’s mom. “I am the fashion designer and make sure their team wear is mer-mazing,” said Courtney. “I am also a global ambassador for girl power,” she added. “Since the girls recently received girl-powered sponsors from Texas and New York, I am sure to keep in contact with our sponsors and help the girls spread their positive message.”

About Their Idea
Winning world awards in robotics doesn’t just happen magically. It takes a lot of proper planning and hard work by many. There are a number of completion areas in VEX IQ robotics, from STEM Research to Engineering and Design, Autonomous (Programming Skills) and Teamwork (Drivers’ Skills). The AquaBots invested many hours into researching a STEM topic. From practicing three to four times a week to touring Ingalls Shipyard and interviewing inventors of robots, what might seem like a hobby now may soon turn into the makings of an excellent career. The girls even participated in 3D printing classes at USM, led by Dr. Anna Wan at the Eagle Maker Hub Lab.

About the Competition
The competition works in several ways. There are “skills” contests that requires teams to drive their robot and score as many points possible. They are also required to program a robot to run autonomously. There are also teamwork-related several matches in which teams are joined to score as many points as possible together. They are judged on their design process and are required to document how they built and changed the robot throughout the year.

It’s all fun and games until something breaks. “During a competition, Mica accidentally ran into her mom and the whole claw of the robot broke off just minutes before it started,” said Courtney. “The girls had to think on their feet and rebuild the robot quickly to make it functional, which allowed experience how important teamwork is under pressure,” she added. This example is one of many that shows why STEM helps cultivate some of the most important life and social skills for children.

“Another major challenge when it comes to competing at the world level is the expense,” said Courtney. “Thanks to business owners in the Oak Grove community, an anonymous donor and their corporate sponsor Solvay Polymers, the girls were able to make their dreams come true and bring home a WIN.” Click here to donate to STEM Community Outreach, a local non-profit organization to support STEM for children and groups like the AquaBots.  To help pay it forward, the AquaBots hope to eventually mentor a younger all-girls robotics team when they get into middle school.

What’s Next for the Aquabots
The AquaBots just finished the 2018 robotics season. Since it’s now technically off-season, the girls are currently in the process of entering a STEM conservation grant with SeaWorld. They have partnered with the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport to create dolphin enrichment toys out of recycled robotics parts. The girls are trying out different ways to attach a GoPro camera to their dolphin toy, which has proven to be quite challenging. They hope to use the camera to study and record dolphin behaviors and reactions to the enrichment toys. These enrichment toys will be presented to the marine institute this summer.

The AquaBots don’t get a summer break. They will have several busy months ahead with robotics, preparing for the upcoming season in October. “Even though they aren’t actively in competition-mode, the work is not over,” said Courtney. “They will use the summer to work on team building activities and STEM research.”  On July 5th, the AquaBots will participate in a beach clean-up. They will be creating a jewelry line from trash they collect on the beach and hope to sell some of their hand-made jewelry to raise money for marine conservation.

How YOU Can Support
The AquaBots are all about GIRL POWER. They hope to inspire other girls to pursue an interest in the STEM field, and they want to spread their message of girl power and marine conservation by inviting people to participate in their beach clean-up on July 5th.