ELYRIA — When they arrived in California on Saturday morning, Kloe Koepp, 13, and her teammates Mia Yates, 13, and Victoria Jones, 14, were pretty confident that Wall-E stood a chance of beating the other robots.
The trio of Elyria Schools’ eighth-graders had spent the last two months pulling 30-to-40-hour weeks to design, build and program Wall-E so it might best the competition.
During the Google Signature Tournament in Sunnyvale, California, last weekend, their hard work paid off as the group won the Excellence award — one of the most coveted prizes for overall performance, skill and design in competitive robotics — in a field of nearly 80 teams.
The trio is part of the group Elyria Robotics, a robotics club for the Elyria Schools. The club was created for Elyria High School in 2016, founded by Elyria High School math teacher Mike West, who serves as head coach for the group.
“I’m in absolute disbelief still because no one expects to go out to California to win the biggest award in one of the biggest tournaments in the country,” West said. “I am unbelievably proud of them for all their hard work and dedication. Anything I ask of them, they keep giving more and more and more. They’ve put in tons of work, and it has absolutely paid off.”
The Google Signature is one of five national, invitational-only robotics tournaments in which middle and high schoolers compete with robots in skill and task-based games and competitions. While the girls didn’t officially win the tournament, nabbing eighth place overall, their programming prowess has scored them a place in the VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville this April.
“I can’t believe it,” said Mia, who acts as the primary driver and controls the robot during competitions. “I’m very proud of us and glad we got this chance to go out have the opportunity.”
Kloe specializes in programming the robot and sees the group’s shortfalls during the Google Signature as motivation to improve themselves for their upcoming competitions.
“It was really cool for us to actually go there and get the chance to compete because we were the only team from Ohio to go there,” she said. “It was so cool to see who we might be competing against at worlds because there are a lot of really good teams who beat us and we will see again at worlds and now we know what to work on.”
Though Elyria Robotics only opened to Elyria middle schools last year, its participants are making a huge impact. Wall-E’s team, officially named 42111n, is ranked first in Ohio, 12th nationally, and 22nd in the world for middle school robotics.
The Google Signature is the latest in a string of victories for 42111n. It’s received first place in three Ohio-based tournaments since January: the Brookside Girl Power Tournament, the Kalahari Classic and the Elyria Pioneer Classic.
“We always just want to learn more, and I feel like it’s a new experience every single time we go,” said Mia. “It’s a lot of fun, you make new friends, we’re like a family there and we love making a difference even if we go and we don’t win an award, we still like going having fun competing and seeing how we rank and how to improve.”
Kathy Koepp attended the California tournament with group 42111n and noted that many of the groups the girls competed against came from schools that specialized in STEM and robotics.
“We are a public school system and many of the teams we compete against when we go to these competitions — they’re STEM schools, they’re technical institutes — and for us to have the high caliber of performance that we do is really incredible,” she said.
In addition to the competitive opportunities, Elyria Robotics has created a distinct community for Elyria kids interested in STEM and robotics. While it only drew 11 kids during its 2016 debut, the group has now swelled to more than 50 students.
It’s also noteworthy that about half of the students involved in Elyria Robotics are females — a challenging feat in a field that has been primarily dominated by males. West added that his female teams have earned a majority of the 36 awards Elyria Robotics has won this season.
“It’s really cool for us to show people that we are in middle school, and we are all girls but we can still beat you,” Mia said.
When Kloe Koepp first joined Elyria Robotics, her parents didn’t quite know what they were getting into, but it quickly became a family affair that both parents are eager to attend.
“We had no idea what to expect at all, and it’s been fun,” said Kris Koepp, who also joined the girls in California. “It’s time-consuming — the tournaments are all day long, a lot of them you have to travel to. But it really is a lot of fun especially with the size of the group Elyria Schools has. Especially since the high school and middle school most of the time compete together at these events.”
“Our girls are very cohesive, they’re very upbeat, and we’re very proud when we’re up in the stands,” added Amy Yates, Mia’s mother. “There are so many more factors than just winning or losing within this game. We’ve seen them grow from last year, and I know we are so proud of how they hold themselves at tournaments.”
In the coming weeks, the group will be preparing for the March 1 state finals and will be tinkering with Wall-E, named after the award winning Pixar film of the same name. Despite their recent national successes, Victoria, the main builder for the team, believes it’s their signature robot aesthetic that has brought them the most acclaim.
“Everybody remembers us for our googly eyes,” she said.