Ball (Galveston, Texas) has never won a state title in football or basketball, but it has an international trophy, thanks to a team of students who helped win the 2016 VEX Robotics Competition High School World Championship.
The competition will be shown Wednesday night at 9 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2.
Maxx Wilson, a rising senior at Ball, began tinkering in robotics when he was at Austin Middle School in Galveston. When he found out there wasn’t a robotics team when he got to Ball, he and other students helped start one. This past year was his second time competing at the World Championships. The team that won the title was comprised of students from Ball, Hefei No. 8 Senior Middle School in Hefei, China and the Discobots from Brampton Robotics Education in Ontario, Canada
“The best thing was seeing all of our friends at the World Championships,” Wilson said. “The community aspect of robotics is just as big as the competition. We’re all very close even though we may be 1,000 miles or more away. We keep in touch mostly through Skype or Facebook Messenger and I talk to them daily and about much more that just robotics.”
According to Ball principal Joe Pillar, Galveston ISD applied for a T-STEM (Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) grant through the Texas Education Agency eight years ago. That became the foundation for a STEM program that today includes half of the school’s 1,900 students. The robotics class grew out of the STEM program.
“I was teaching a engineering class at a middle school,” Ball robotics teacher Brian Massey said. “I got a call from Mr. Pillar asking if I would be interested in teaching a robotics class at Ball High. This group of kids found me and told me they were competing in robotics as a family team and asked if I would be interested in sponsoring them. I said yes, not knowing what I was getting into. Over the past few years our program has gone from what you could call a garage team to an organized team through the school district. This past year, we had 18 robots competing. We won the middle school state championship, the high school state championship, the middle school national championship, the high school national championship and the World Championship.”
When the team won the world championships in April in Louisville, restaurants and other businesses in Galveston Island, which is a close-knit city of 47,000 off the Texas Gulf Coast, congratulated the team on their marquees and the Galveston Chamber of Commerce honored the team.
“We’re a single high school district and everyone here loves Ball High,” Pillar said. “We have a lot of tradition and excellence. Winning something like this was like winning a state championship for football. It’s very significant and powerful.”
Massey said he had about 50 students involved on robotics teams this past year and expects that number to double next year.
“These students went from nobody paying attention to them to being recognized for their hard work,” Massey said. “What’s neat is they were the driving force behind creating this club — it wasn’t a group of adults who were pushing for it.”
Each of the robots costs $1,000 to $1,500 to build and the robots go through several rebuilds as they go through various levels of competition. Different competitions ask the robots to perform different tasks. Massey said he usually puts five students on a team. The robot’s driver, like a football quarterback, gets most of the attention, but teamwork is crucial for success.
“That’s what neat about robotics,” Pillar said. “It’s not just what you can do, it’s working with others. The people on the team have to be flexible and be able to work with others.”
Wilson didn’t get to bask in the glory long.
“We started working on next year’s robots almost as soon as we got back,” Wilson said.