Due West Robotics Team “Tornado of Ideas” Heads to World Championships

The town of Due West, with a population of 1,250, has four robotics teams for school-age kids, founded by Due West’s mayor, Charles Angel, and coached by Angel and other parents. In all, 143 students are involved in robotics—more than 10% of the town’s population. One of the teams—the “Tornado of Ideas”—won the state championship and will head to the world championship in Houston, Texas, next month. Worldwide, there are 24,000 teams, and 108 teams will vie for the world title.

The competition is run by FIRST (which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) and uses LEGO Mindstorms kits to inspire kids 6–18 to use STEM technology to solve real-world problems. The very youngest budding engineers and inventors, ages 6–8, are in teams called Junior FLL (FIRST Lego League), and the next level up, ages 9–14, are FLL teams. For older students, there are two options: FIRST Tech Challenge for 7th–12th graders, and FIRST Robotics Competition for 9th–12th graders.

In Due West, the four established teams are FLL and Junior FLL teams, with two of each. Unlike most teams that are tied to a school, the Due West Robotics teams are truly community teams, with students from public, private, and homeschools participating, and Angel has set the program up as a nonprofit. “It brings the community together,” he says, “and all of our kids have an opportunity to participate.”

So how does the mayor of a small town wind up coaching a state-championship-winning robotics team? It started when his oldest boy, Ethan, got a LEGO Mindstorms kit for Christmas back in 2011. Ethan got some of his friends together to work on projects, and that summer, they heard about a robotics camp near Clemson that used that same kit. Angel took Ethan to the camp and he loved it. Angel met two people there who already had FIRST teams, and they encouraged him to start a team.

“We ended up jumping in feet first. We had no clue what we were getting into, but it was a wonderful experience, and it blossomed into what we’ve got now,” he says.

In 2012, they started with four kids in the 9–14 age range, including Ethan. “We wanted to give our kids an opportunity to try one of these competitions,” Angel says. “What we found was that the kids grew so much that we wanted to give that chance to more kids.”

The teams have mentors, but, Angel says, “One of the core values is that mentors don’t have all the answers, so the kids do the work.” That work involves everything from coming up with team names to creating a business plan to coming up with a workable invention to pitching their invention to competition judges. The range of skills developed goes well beyond STEM skills, and participants learn a great deal about working together as a team.

Every year, all of the 300,000 or so participating students come up with inventions around a theme selected by FIRST. This year’s theme is Animal Allies, and an introductory video gives examples of the kinds of challenges that students might try to solve—the challenge of transporting animals, feeding them in captivity, and even dealing with and analyzing manure. The students’ job is to identify a challenge and come up with a solution using LEGO robotics.

The winning solution that the Tornado of Ideas team came up with was called the Goat Guard, which allows goats to keep their horns but keeps them from getting their horns stuck in fences, which is a common problem. The students interviewed farmers to identify the problem, and then they tested their invention on real goats and refined it based on farmers’ feedback.

Due West parents do pay a small fee for their children to be on the teams, but there are also 25 corporate sponsors from the community, and fundraisers make up the rest. With all of that community support, Angel says, the team was able to raise the money they will need to travel to Houston within a month of winning the state championship.

Seeing the positive results the robotics teams have had on both the students and the community, Angel has been encouraging other small communities in the area to start teams of their own, holding workshops to teach the skills and introduce the concept. The Due West group has worked with Calhoun Falls and Honea Path Middle School to get teams started, and last year they partnered with Bosch in Anderson, their biggest sponsor, for a Girls in STEM day to introduce middle school and high school girls to FIRST and get more girls involved.

Due West Robotics is broadening their scope themselves, adding a high school team, a rocketry team, and a game developers club for ages 12–18, which already has 20 kids in its first year.

Photos courtesy of Due West Robotics.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.