On March 25, 2023, Sigma Mu Mu Chapter, Third District of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., coached ten Leesburg Elementary School students in the Academies of Loudoun VEX Robotics Competition as part of the chapter’s new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative. In VEX Robotics Competitions, teams of students are tasked with designing, building, and programming robots to compete against other teams in a game-based engineering challenge that involves overcoming obstacles and solving problems. Tournaments for different grade levels are held at the local, regional, state, and national levels, and culminate at the VEX Robotics World Championship each April. The Academies of Loudoun competition was held in Leesburg, Virginia among 70 teams from 16 Loudoun County elementary and middle schools; the Sigma Mu Mu-coached Leesburg Elementary team placed a respectable 5th in the 70-team field of this exciting and fun local event.
The framework for the chapter’s partnership with Leesburg Elementary came from the principal of Leesburg Elementary School, Sigma Mu Mu’s own Brother Shawn Lacey. When Sigma Mu Mu’s STEM Committee reached out to him to see if there was an opportunity to help develop a STEM program at his school, the committee was pleasantly surprised to learn that Leesburg Elementary already had a robust STEM curriculum; the students were already coding and excelling in multiple STEM areas. Brother Lacey indicated that the Leesburg Elementary Robotics team could use the chapter’s help and brokered a partnership among Sigma Mu Mu, Leesburg Elementary, PROPEL (Providing Rich Opportunities Plus Enrichment Learning), and Level Up. PROPEL and Level Up are STEM after-school programs designed to provide academic support for high-achieving underrepresented students; PROPEL and Level Up staff members also coordinate the local VEX Robotics Competition.
Sigma Mu Mu Chapter began working with Leesburg Elementary in January 2023 whereas the school has been involved with the PROPEL and Level Up programs as well as the Vex Robotics Competition for the past two years. Led by STEM Committee Co-Chairmen Brother Duane Keye and Brother Brian Porter, Sigma Mu Mu made an immediate impact. The Brothers built the robotics competition playing field, including obstacles that the students’ robots had to overcome, and worked with the Robotics Team for two hours, three times a week. The chapter’s primary mission was to coach, guide, and ask thought-provoking questions in an effort to help students create solutions on their own or within their group. “We were there to help the students get comfortable with coming up with a potential solution and to help them understand why their design was or was not successful. We wanted them to become comfortable with failure, as we recognized that through failure comes learning,” explained Brother Porter. During the early days of the build process, there were many moments of frustration as several students had to completely scrap and rebuild their robots when they discovered some of their earlier designs were not functional. “There were times when, as coaches, we knew certain designs were not going to work, but we had to let them learn on their own,” said Brother Keye.
After the robots were built, the Sigma Mu Mu coaches assisted the students with testing them on the game field; the game's objective was to score points by freeing small pucks from obstacles and pushing those pucks to specific spots on the playing field. The students had to first learn to drive their robots using a game controller. Once they mastered driving, the students had to program their robots to run autonomously through the course. When maneuvering through the course, the students quickly realized that some were better at driving, and others were better at coding the robots. After seven weeks of tireless work, the Leesburg Elementary team was ready for the competition.
Upon arrival, the team was amazed by the size of the school and the number of other VEX Robotics Competition participants; attendees included more than 200 students as well as hundreds of parents, coaches and friends. After taking time to walk the students around the school, the coaches took them to a classroom where they ate breakfast and put the finishing touches on their robots. Soon after, the students were called down to begin competing.
There were three different competition challenges: the team event, the individual driving event, and the programming event. The Sigma Mu Mu coaches provided in-game support on the competition floor. There was a tense moment when one of the team’s robots malfunctioned and Brother Keye pulled the team aside to help reprogram their robot. “Our students were very upset when their programming failed during the competition”, recalled Brother Keye. “I asked the judge to give us another opportunity, and he agreed. We quickly pulled up the code that our team had written. We discovered the error, made the fix, and tested the robot on the field; it worked perfectly. The judge allowed the students to try again, and they earned a high score for our team. I was so proud of the kids for not panicking or giving up. They collaborated, talked through the problem, and came up with a solution. That is the whole purpose of this competition,” shared Brother Keye.
Ultimately, the Leesburg Elementary team finished as one of the top five teams, and the students and coaches had a great time. The real victory was that the students worked together and learned how to solve problems as a team. Sigma Mu Mu Chapter thanks Brother Shawn Lacey and PROPEL & Level Up coordinator, Mrs. Tamara Morgan, for allowing the chapter to be a part of such an awesome event. “Having an opportunity to work with the Leesburg Elementary team and participating in the competition was an amazing experience,” said Brother Porter. “I feel like we got just as much out of it as the students. We cannot wait until next year”.