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Greenbelt Robots Compete at National Championship

In March 2023, four robots built by students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School competed at the US Open robotics championship that was held in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Pictured below is one of these robots at the US Open and three of the students who built it: Ashwin Selvarajasingham, Ben Ruby, and Veena Raj (left to right). The national competition was a dramatic end to the team’s season.

ERHS robot 53A after winning first elimination round as 2023 US Open
Photo Credit: Owen Kelley


The Road to the National Championship

Each April, the VEX corporation announces the set of challenges that robots must perform during the following academic year. High school students who take the competition seriously start designing their new robots right away by prototyping them (i.e., trial and error) or designing them with CAD (computer-aided design software).

In Greenbelt, the robotics season began quietly in May 2022, with bins of metal parts reminiscent of an oversized Erector set, along with gears, wires, belts, motors, and computer brains waiting to be programmed by the students.

CAD design for robot 53A
A design for robot 53A created by students using computer-aided design (CAD) software.

To stand a chance against the steep competition from other Maryland teams, the Eleanor Roosevelt team took steps to overcome a few disadvantages. Outside of Prince Georges County, some middle schools have robotics teams that feed into their local high school team. Outside PG County, some high schools have students build their first VEX robots in the classroom as part of their engineering curriculum. In future years, the team and the PG County school system may be able to address some of this issues.[1]

Meanwhile, during the 2022–23 school year, the Eleanor Roosevelt strategy was to have a large team, long practices, and an early start to the season. This year, the Eleanor Roosevelt team was divided into five squads of five or six students each (squads A through E). Each squad built their own robot and shared ideas with the other squads. The team held practices from 4 to 7 pm on Friday and Saturday almost non-stop from May through March. The team even held practice during summer vacation except for a three-week break. In the fall, team alumni visited to help bring the freshmen up to speed.

These long practices were possible because, since 2020, the team’s workshop has been on the campus of the former Washington Bible College, located two miles south of Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Six years ago, the Bible college’s building were converted into a sports and academic facility called the Washington Education Zone.

The team’s off-campus workshop is the reason the team could maintain its aggressive practice schedule. The county school system does allow athletic teams to practice in school facilities on weekends, weekday evenings, and during summer break. At this time, the school system does not grant the robotics team this level of access even though Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the county’s three magnet schools for science and technology.

Saturday robotics competitions with other Maryland schools ran October through February. This academic year, the Eleanor Roosevelt team attended seven competitions at high schools within a two-hour’s drive of Greenbelt, plus the Maryland state-championship robotics tournament.[2]

At each of these competitions, the Eleanor Roosevelt team typically faced 20 to 30 robots. Throughout game day, teams would adjust robots and control software to overcome weaknesses revealed on the competition field. They also patched up parts that broke during the push-and-shove of a match.

ERHS robot 53D in Baltimore, Jan. 2023
At the Baltimore competition on January 15, 2023, Ajibola Ajani contemplates making last-minute changes to robot 53D’s software. In the background, Jack Zheng and Emma Cantwell make adjustments to the robot’s body. Photo credit: Glen Blanc.

As reported in the Greenbelt News Review, the Greenbelt team hosted a competition at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on December 17, 2022. Twenty-eight robotics competed, turning the cafeteria at Eleanor Roosevelt into a robot Mecca for the day. Over 200 students, family, and friends attended. The school’s principal, Dr. Portia Barnes, addressed the crowd and encouraged everyone to play their best.[3]

ERHS Dec 17, 2022, panorama
A panoramic view of the robotics tournament held at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on December 17, 2022. At the beginning, each of the 28 teams sent a representative to the robot driver meeting, shown in this photo.

The two-robot alliance that won the December 17 competition was made up to two of Eleanor Roosevelt’s own robots: robots 53B and 53C. The students who built these two robots are pictured below just after receiving their trophies. Left to right they are Gabriel Cruz, Miles Campbell (alumnus), David Hsu (holding the trophy for 53B), Jin Hao Cao, David Blaufuss (holding robot 53B), Brendan Hille, Isaiah Blanc, Max Nelkin, Evan McClelland, Sameer Kumar (holding the trophy for 53C), and Jonathan Hille.

ERHS 17 Dec 2023 trophies
Greenbelt squads 53B and 53C with their trophies at the December 17, 2022, competition held at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Photo Credit: Glen Blanc.

The December 17 competition at Eleanor Roosevelt was the only high school VEX robotics competition held in Prince George’s County this academic year. It was natural for the Eleanor Roosevelt team to host this competition, the team being by far the largest and most active VEX high-school robotics team in the county.[4]

Across the United States and in several other countries, statistics were kept to measure how well over 5,500 robots performed in local competitions this year. The CREATE Foundation that annually runs the US Open championship watched these statistics. In this way, the foundation identified which high-performing robots to invite to the US Open.

At the National Championship

On March 23 to 25, 2023, four robots built by Eleanor Roosevelt students competed against 154 other robots at the US Open national championship. The event was held in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a giant field house large enough for four basketball courts to be marked on its wooden floor. The robots at the US Open came from 115 schools across the country with a few schools bringing two or three robots. Eleanor Roosevelt was the only school to bring four robots to the US Open this year.[5]

During the first day of the three-day US Open championship, the atmosphere was relatively low key. That day, each robot competed on its own, fighting the clock to maximize points scored.

This year’s challenge had the robots scoring points by picking up and throwing disks, turning rollers at the edge of the field, and expanding to cover the field. Show below is robot 53E having just thrown two disks into a basket to score 10 points on the first day of the US Open.

ERHS robot 53E, first day US Open
On the first day of the US Open, Greenbelt’s robot 53E shoots two yellow disks into the basket (left side of photo). Alan Morales and John Kelley (wearing hat) are driving the robot. Photo credit: Millie Tansill.

During the second and third days of the US Open, the energy level amped up with the games featuring four robots on the field at a time. The action was nearly continuous with a field in play in all four corners of the cavernous field house. Loudspeakers carried blow-by-blow accounts of each match. Over everyone’s head, oversized screens live-streamed the matches and flashed the latest team rankings.

For each two-minute match, four robots were randomly selected to form a pair of two-robot alliances. Before the match began, the two teams on the same alliance had a few minutes to strategize about how best to score points and how best to block, push, and otherwise frustrate the efforts of the two robots in the opposing alliance.

The most dramatic way to score points was for a robot to expand explosively during the last 10 seconds of each match. The goal was to cover as much of the playing field as possible. The favored way to expand was to use rubber bands and pneumatics to eject weights tied to heavy cord. In the photo below, an Eleanor Roosevelt student rewinds the cords of robot 53B.

ERHS robot 53B, rewinding cords
David Blaufuss rewinds the string launcher of Greenbelt’s Robot 53B. Photo credit: Erik Blaufuss.

Robots that ranked the highest during the first days of the competition qualified to compete in the single-elimination rounds that took place during the last afternoon of the competition. Three Eleanor Roosevelt robots made the cut: robots 53A, 53B, and 53C.

Behind the Scenes

In the elimination rounds on the last afternoon of the US Open, the students were allowed to chose which school to join to form a two-robot alliance. During the days leading up to the elimination rounds, students prepared by visiting other schools’ booths. They got to know the students and discussed their robots’ strengths and weaknesses.

ERHS pit at US Open with visitors
Eleanor Roosevelt students at their booth at the US Open. Visitors from other schools stop by to chat. Photo credit: Millie Tansill.

Within the large field house, each school’s booth was affectionately known its “pit.” At their pits, many schools, including Eleanor Roosevelt, gave away stickers to passers by. The Eleanor Roosevelt stickers featured the team logo, which was designed by team alumna Teresa Thoundayil.

ERHS robotics 2022-23 t-shirt design
The Eleanor Roosevelt High School robotics logo as seen on the team shirt for the 2022–23 season.

The story behind the team’s logo is that, for all teams that represent Eleanor Roosevelt High School, their mascot is some variation on the “raider.” More than a decade ago, the VEX robotics program assigned number 53 to Eleanor Roosevelt. The students started calling their team “Area 53, the Alien Raiders,” which is a play on the Area 51 made famous by UFO fanatics.

ERHS robot 53C in pit
In the team’s pit at the US Open, Joseph Conaty holds Greenbelt’s robot 53C steady while Jonathan Hille makes repairs. Photo credit: Barb Hille.

Final Elimination

During the elimination rounds at the US Open, Eleanor Roosevelt’s robot 53A formed an alliance with the robot named Critical Mass from Berthoud, Colorado (robot 1069E). Their alliance was the underdog of the elimination rounds, being seeded last of 12.

In their first elimination game, Eleanor Roosevelt’s alliance faced the fifth seeded alliance whose two robots came from Istanbul, Turkey, and Park Hills, Kentucky (robots 22911M and 9257F). Several teams at the US Open were from other countries: Canada, Panama, Taiwan, or Turkey.

During the first 15 seconds of the elimination game, Eleanor Roosevelt’s robot 53A achieved an early lead by scoring baskets and turning rollers. The first 15 seconds of each match are especially challenging because, during that time, the robots must perform based on preloaded programs. Only after the first 15 seconds does a student start driving the robot using a two-handed wireless controller.[6]

After the first 15 seconds, the opposing two-robot alliance became aggressive about pushing and disrupting. The match resembled a hockey game. Eleanor Roosevelt’s robot 53A was harassed almost non-stop by a larger robot in the opposing alliance (robot 9257F). Nonetheless, robot 53A broke free repeatedly to score points. Eleanor Roosevelt’s alliance was behind by 25 points with 15 seconds left on the clock, but then robot 53A broke free and turned two of the four rollers at the edge of the field. This trick left too little time for the opposing alliance to turn both rollers back to their color.

ERHS robot 53A live stream
A screenshot from the live-stream of the first elimination match for Greenbelt’s robot 53A. Photo credit: CREATE Foundation.

The photo above is a screenshot from the video camera above the field that live-streamed this round of the US Open. This screenshot shows the moment that robot 53A finished turning two rollers to their color with 15 second remaining on the clock. The blue and red arrows added to the left side of the photo mark the location of robot 53A (blue arrow) and the opposing robot of the red alliance (red arrow). Three blue arrows on the right side of the photo point to robot 53A’s drive team: Ashwin Selvarajasingham, Ben Ruby, and Michael Thoundayil.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s partner, robot 1069E, brought their alliance the rest of the way to an upset victory by catapulting several strings to cover most of the field with just 4 seconds remaining on the clock.

ERHS robot 53A final game
Robot 53A plays its second elimination round at the US Open. Photo credit: Owen Kelley.

After winning its first elimination round, robot 53A lost its second elimination round. This point was the furthest that any robot from Eleanor Roosevelt made it during the US Open this year.

During these matches, the players’ concentration and the audience’s intensity were palpable. It was easy to forget this was a engineering competition, not a sports event.

The Big Picture

Since 1998, students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School have built competition robots except in 2020–21 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Up to 2016, the Eleanor Roosevelt team built giant 4-foot-tall robots in order to compete in the FIRST robotics program. Since 2011, the team has built 2-foot-tall robots that are sized to compete in the VEX robotics program.[7]

With 2,400 students attending Eleanor Roosevelt High School, it would be easy to feel lost in the crowd. Almost half of the student body comes from across northern Prince Georges County to attend the Science and Tech program at Eleanor Roosevelt. While many Eleanor Roosevelt students live in Greenbelt, many others turned down attending their neighborhood school to enroll in Science and Tech. Joining the 27-member robotics team can make the school seem less intimidatingly large.[8]

While computer programming and computer-aided design are part of the Science and Tech program at Eleanor Roosevelt, the freshmen on the robotics team haven’t taken those classes yet. To bring freshmen up to speed, upperclassmen on the team and team alumni mentor them. They teach the freshmen about the PROS C-based programming environment that creates programs for the robots’ on-board computers. They also teach freshman about computer-aided design applications, such as PTC Onshape and Fusion 360. Incidentally, these skills are in demand in the tech industry.

The Eleanor Roosevelt robotics team is supported by the volunteer efforts of parents and recent graduates. During the 2022–23 academic year, the team’s coaches were Karl Hille, Julie Joseph, and Kevin Yen. The team’s faculty advisor was Karen Bogoski, who is one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s engineering teachers. Bogoski was a major organizing force for the robotics tournament held at Eleanor Roosevelt in December 2022. Recent Eleanor Roosevelt graduates Gavin Crisologo, Chad Bo, and Miles Campbell mentored the current students. The many active parents included Jen Shepard, who organized the volunteer schedule, and George Thoundayil, who chaperoned many of the practices.

Business contributed about half of the team’s budget this year with the rest coming from parents, grandparents, and members of the community. The team’s sponsors included the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, Banish Pest, Chesapeake Mission Critical, Pro-Spex, the Eleanor Roosevelt Parent Teacher Student Association, and Corrigan Sports Enterprises.

At the end of the 2023 US Open, team members posed for a photo outside the field house where the competition had been held.

ERHS robotics team photo at US Open
Members of Eleanor Roosevelt’s robotics team at the US Open national robotics championship in Iowa in March 2023. Photo credit: Barb Hille.

In the back row, the photo shows left to right David Hsu, Gabriel Cruz, David Blaufuss, Jin Sheng Cao, coach Karl Hille, Joseph Conaty, Alan Morales, Michael Thoundayil, Sameer Kumar, Ben Ruby, Veena Raj, Jonathan Hille, Isaiah Blanc, and Evan McClelland. The front row shows John Kelley, Brendan Hille, Will Tansill, Ashwin Selvarajasingham, Felix Hass, and Max Nelkin.

The team has aspirations of building robots that will qualify to compete at the US Open national championship next spring. In a few weeks, the VEX corporation will announce the challenge for the 2023–24 school year.[9]

End Notes

[1] North of Baltimore, the Hereford middle schools and high school have a strong robotics program: https://sites.google.com/view/hzr929/home. The national model curriculum called “Project Lead the Way” (PLTW) includes building VEX V5 robots as an optional component. While several PG County high schools implement the PLTW curriculum, it appears that they do not include the VEX robotics component. Other public and private high schools in Maryland are believed to include the VEX component of PLTW. Description of PLTW robotics: https://www.pltw.org/blog/curriculum-updates-2023-24-school-year. The Elkridge Maryland International School, for example, does implement the VEX component of PLTW: https://marylandinternationalschool.org/vex-robotics-club/.

[2] For list of competitions attended by squad 53A of the ERHS robotics team, visit https://www.robotevents.com/teams/VRC/53A, or for the other ERHS squads, substitute 53B through 53E at the end of the URL. Squad 53A attended the following competitions during the 2022–23 season: Dulaney High School’s Royal Rumble, Timonium, MD (12 Nov 2022); Hereford Zone Robotics Stampede, Monkton, MD (3 Dec 2022); South Hagerstown Rebel Rumble, Hagerstown, MD (10 Dec 2022); Capital Beltway Challenge at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt, MD (17 Dec 2022); BMore Robotic Have a Dream VRC Tournament, Baltimore, MD (14 Jan 2023); Calvert Hall College High School’s Cardinal Classic VRC, Towson, MD (20 Jan 2023); Loyola Blakefield High School’s Blakefield Robotics Challenge II, Towson, MD (28 Jan 2023); Maryland State Championship, Baltimore, MD (4 March 2023); and US Open VEX High School Robotics Championship, Council Bluffs, Iowa (23-25 March 2023). Squads 53C, 53D, and 53D also attended the Southern Maryland Showdown at North Point High School in Waldorf, MD (21 Jan 2023).

[3] Greenbelt News Review, 22 December 2022, page 15.

[4] For a map of nearby VEX high school robotics teams, visit https://www.robotevents.com/map. The other PG-County-based teams that competed last year participated in 1 to 3 events and built 1 or 2 robots. They are Cortana from Upper Marlboro (8034A); the Jaguars from Charles Herbert Flowers High School, Springdale (64882A); the Robotic Runners from Elizabeth Seton High School, Bladensburg (98719A and C); the CMIT Tigers from CMIT Academic South public charter high school, Upper Marlboro (65356A); and the Purple Boots Mentoring Program in Fort Washington (70573A and B).

[5] At the time of writing, one can download a spreadsheet from https://robotevents.com that lists the team participating in the US Open competition this year. The event’s page is https://www.robotevents.com/robot-competitions/vex-robotics-competition/RE-VRC-22-8473.html. The CREATE Foundation has its own page for this year’s event: https://www.create-found.org/U.S.OpenNationals2023.php. See also Greenbelt News Review, 6 April 2023, page 16.

[6] At the time of writing, robot 53A’s first elimination match could be viewed on YouTube by going to time 1:38:00 in the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eGTSy9pEmY. The video lacks audio.

[7] FIRST Robotics Competition website show Eleanor Roosevelt’s team during 1998–2016: https://frc-events.firstinspires.org/team/53. Team 53’s FIRST robotics website archived by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20200930073817/https://frc-events.firstinspires.org/team/53. FIRST robotics: Greenbelt News Review, 25 March 1999, page 3, “Dragun, Grab that Donut,” by Nelda Young. Also News Review, 6 April 2000, pg. 16; 22 Aug 2002, pg. 1; and 21 Feb 2019, pg. 1. See NASA Goddard’s involvement: https://web.archive.org/web/20030515122008/http://web547.gsfc.nasa.gov/first/index.html. VEX Robotics Competition website shows Eleanor Roosevelt team statistics from 2011–12 to the present. For squad 53A, visit https://www.robotevents.com/teams/VRC/53A. For squads 53B through 53E, change the last letter of the URL to B through E.

[8] ERHS enrollment has fallen from 2,600 to 2,400 in recent years according to the school website: https://www.pgcps.org/schools/eleanor-roosevelt-high. The Science and Tech program at ERHS admits 250 students per year according to its website: https://sites.google.com/pgcps.org/erhs-sci-tech/home/about-us.

[9] The VEX Robotics Competition (VRC) 2022–23 academic year robotics challenge will be announced by streaming video at https://www.vexworlds.tv.

Follow Owen A Kelley:
Owen Kelley is an atmospheric scientist who has lived in Greenbelt for 25 years. He writes occasionally for the Greenbelt Online blog and Greenbelt News Review.

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