Robotics competition returns to Aspen Middle School |

Robotics competition returns to Aspen Middle School

Organizer considers 2021 a “rebuilding year” for district’s robotics programs

Students work on final programming touches for their robots at the after school program at Aspen Middle School on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Seven teams from the middle school will compete in a regional qualifier in 2021, where the competition focuses on cargo and transportation.
Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times file photo

John Seybold can pretty much guarantee that two robotics teams from Aspen will qualify for the FIRST LEGO League Challenge championship in Littleton this December.

That’s because every competitor in this year’s local Mountain region qualifying tournament — slated for Saturday at the middle school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — is a student at Aspen Middle School. Competition opens to the public starting around 12:15 p.m., said Seybold, who along with his wife, Jeannie, has been involved in Aspen’s robotics programs as a parent and then adviser for more than half a decade.

“In the past, we’ve had teams from all over the Western Slope,” he said. “This year, just because of the timing of our tournaments and general post-COVID (caution), we actually only have seven teams participating in the tournament — that’s unusual.”

It doesn’t mean the tournament will be a ghost town though. Each of the seven teams has between five and 10 students on board, and all of the nearly 50 middle schoolers in the program will be participating, Seybold said. Two teams will qualify for the state championship.

The gist of the tournament is just what you might expect from a LEGO robotics competition: Make a robot out of Legos, then make it complete certain tasks. The 4-by-8-foot playing field contains other objects — also made of Legos — that the robots interact with in a variety of challenges.

This year’s theme is “Cargo Connect,” with a focus on cargo and transportation. Tasks could include unloading cargo planes or moving a package on a ship deck, according Seybold.

Scale up that task by a factor of 10 or 50 and it’s easy to see the real-world application of robotics programs like this one that teach programming and engineering skills. There is also a research component called the “Innovation Project.”

“The teams go out and they find some real world problem and research it and try to come up with a solution, and we have some pretty interesting ones this year,” Seybold said, including one team that’s looking at traffic light efficiency.

The middle school program and competition is also a “gateway” to high school robotics, where the technology students work with is “actually not that different from real, industrial robots,” Seybold said.

Seybold considers 2021 a “rebuilding year” for the extracurricular program that was spearheaded for many years by Caroline and Peter Hanson, a “much loved” pair of teachers at Aspen Middle School who have since retired, he said.

COVID-19 disrupted the program last year, but interest in robotics remains strong, given that more than 10% of the middle school student population is actively involved in the program that takes place outside of school hours. The high school now offers a robotics course — currently in its first year, taught by Josh Anderson — and organizers are looking to the future with hopes of integrating more robotics work into the district’s offerings, Seybold said.

“We’re trying to bring it back,” he said.