VEX Flexing: Southland robotics qualifies all eight teams for state tournament

Published 6:35 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

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The Southland robotics group is getting used to setting new milestones and this year they did it again.

In the around 10 years of the school’s VEX Robotics history, the program has enjoyed plenty of successes and sending teams onto the state tournament, but never before had they qualified all of their teams.

This year, that changed.

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“Usually, most of our teams qualify for the state tournament through a tournament and then usually the last one or two teams have to qualify by their skills ranking,” said the team’s coach Paula Mortenson. “It’s right before the state tournament, then they see what spots are open and then they add. This year, all eight of our teams qualified in December for tournaments based on placement in tournaments, which is really a big deal.”

Part of this success is reflected by one of the middle school teams. The Borderbots  has gone four-for-four in winning the excellence award at tournaments.

The Borderbots were 4-for-4 this year in winning the Excellence Award this year. Photo provided

“That’s a really big deal,” Mortenson said. “That’s the top award a team can get based on performance and documentation of their design process and kind of their time management skills.”

Another way to look at all of this is just how the team has grown over the years. A slow start, which all new teams generally face when beginning a program, has blossomed into one of the most vibrant programs in the area.

This year alone, they added two more teams, made possible by a chance encounter with Shivakumar Venkataraman, an engineering vice president at Google at last year’s worlds competition, who understood the challenges small town programs have in getting funding and parts.

In turn, this conversation resulted in a $8,000 grant for the Southland program, resulting in the opportunity to add two more teams.

Which has been a boon simply in terms of numbers as the team has steadily drawn more and more students into the confines of the robot competitive arena.

“When I was young, I saw all of these older kids doing it and I just thought how cool it was to see how they were controlling and building these robots,” said seventh-grader Kevin Garey. “I thought it would be interesting.”

There’s rarely a time when the room is empty.

“We’re here three nights a week and then we’re here during the day and during study hall and home room,” said eighth-grader Kaden Helgeson.

All of this interaction and the success is exciting for Mortenson because the robotics program is more than building robots and going to competitions.

This is a route to STEM education itself and with technology becoming more important to day-to-day education, robotics is the place to be.

“For decades we’ve been sitting in meetings, ‘how do we get these kids in STEM?’” Mortenson said. “This is the perfect pipeline. We have such smart kids that may struggle bookwise, but man can they build and program and do all these great things that we know are going to be necessary.”

It also puts the kids in control of not only the robots but the direction of the group and the students have taken that and run, building a program that’s beginning to shine like a beacon in the area as to how a program like this can afford opportunities to students.

Still, having all eight make statement remains something to marvel.

“Of course you want every team to make it, but usually because we’ve always had to rely on the skills ranking in the past, I really wasn’t sure,” Mortenson said. “It’s never really happened before so the fact that each of the teams qualified back in December  — it kind of took my breath away.”

The state tournament will be held Thursday and Friday at St. Cloud’s River’s Edge Convention Center.

Southland Teams Going to State