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My Student Experience: Wolfpack Robotics VEXU Club Places in Top 5 at 1st Intercollegiate Competition, Finishes 4th at VEXU World Championships

Wolfpack Robotics Club

This is part of a monthly “My Student Experience” series in which the NC State College of Education highlights the student experience through profiles, stories and videos.

When Annie Li ’22 was in high school, she participated in VEX robotics competitions, where VEX teams design and create robots to fit a game for that year. While competing in these competitions, she built relationships with students from other teams. 

A coincidental reunion at NC State between Li, James Wittenborn and another student, who all had competed against each other in high school and allied together to win the state tournament, inspired the launch of the NC State Wolfpack Robotics VEXU Club.

All three students wanted to compete again and decided to start the club a couple of years ago. Due to VEX’s focus on STEM education, the club is a collaboration with the College of Education and operates as a subset of the Technology and Engineering Education Collegiate Association (TEECA). Li, who is double majoring in industrial systems engineering and technology, engineering, and design education with a concentration in graphic communications, suggested that Assistant Teaching Professor Parks Newby ’74, ’75MED serve as advisor. 

“The Wolfpack Robotics VEXU Club is NC State’s VEX Robotics team. We compete against other teams from universities around the world,” said Wittenborn, a senior electrical and computer engineering dual degree major and president of the Wolfpack VEXU Robotics Club. “Although we started the team a couple of years ago, we didn’t compete in any official events to focus on getting established and to participate in the TEECA competition.”

In March, the club competed in their first intercollegiate competition, finishing fifth out of 13 teams from the United States and Canada and earning the 19th highest score in the world.

“It was a gratifying experience to be able to officially compete in an event as a team, despite being remote this season. Placing so highly was a pleasant surprise for the team as we didn’t expect much for our first competition,” Wittenborn said. 

With the 19th highest score in the world, the team was invited to participate in the VEXU World Championship Tournament, which took place virtually June 25-26, where they finished fourth in the world. They were also presented with the Judges Award, one of three judged awards given during the event, in recognition of their service to the community through supporting local and state high school and middle school robotics competitions over the past year. 

“I am so proud of our club members for this level of achievement in our first year of competition, especially given the COVID restrictions for student organizations at NC State. I am very proud of what our Wolfpack Robotics Club has accomplished in our first year of existence as an official student organization at NC State,” Newby said. “We are looking forward to next year with the return of face-to-face competition.”

The robotics team designs, builds and programs robots to compete in these competitions. During the competitions, there are two portions. The competitive portion consists of two university teams with two robots each competing against each other in a single game field with robots completing different tasks, such as lifting things, shooting things or moving objects from one place to another, The skills portion is done in a field with one team working to score as high as possible against a timer. Due to COVID-19, only the skills portion was judged this year. 

The club, which started with three members, now has 14 official members and is the first college-based VEXU Robotics team in North Carolina. According to Newby, the team is also the only club based out of a college of education.  

The Wolfpack Robotics VEXU Club offers a very different experience than other robotics teams, says Wittenborn, in that the club focuses more on robotics in education rather than just technical ability. That allows for a diverse group of team members with varying skill levels. 

Aside from competitions, the club members also volunteer at local events, such as the Triangle Robotics League, where they often meet and mentor middle and high school students, and some of the qualifying tournaments across the state.

“Everything has been a pleasant and welcome surprise. It’s exciting to be able to represent NC State and think about how it may influence future Wolfpack members,” Li said. “What I enjoy the most about the club is that it’s just me and my friends goofing around, making robots.”