California State University, Northridge mechanical engineering junior Steven Paqueo has been involved with robotics since the fifth grade, when his mother convinced him to participate in the VEX Robotics summer camp. From there, he stayed active in VEX Robotics clubs throughout middle school and high school. When Paqueo enrolled at CSUN, he decided to try something new — working for the Robotics Education and Competition (REC) Foundation, rather than joining the CSUN VEX Robotics club.
But two years later, CSUN’s VEX Robotics team has qualified for the VEX Robotics World Championship, which will take place April 20-23 in Louisville, Kentucky — with Paqueo on board.
While working for the REC Foundation, Paqueo helped organize various robotics competitions, including the annual VEX Robotics World Championship. When he saw two of his friends competing for the University of Colorado at Boulder at the 2014 World Championship, he felt his passion for robotics competitions rekindle.
“I couldn’t believe how well [the Colorado team] was doing, because they just started from scratch with their own money. I just thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,'” Paqueo said. “So, I came back [to VEX Robotics] right after the world championship. I walked straight through the club’s door and signed up. I wanted to beat my friends so badly. Ever since, I have spent more hours [at the club] than I have at home.”
VEX Robotics is an international education initiative, encouraging students of all ages to discover science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields related to robotics design, and supporting leadership, teamwork and problem-solving skills. In 2011, CSUN established a VEX Robotics club, which has been growing ever since.
“When I joined in 2012, it was only five of us gathering around one little cabinet and working out of a cardboard box full of steel components,” said Edwyn Jocol, president of the club and a senior in computer information technology. “Now we are more than 20 members, and I am proud to be part of the club and see it grow.”
CSUN’s VEX Robotics club recently won the championship and excellence award at a four-round tournament at University of Southern California in February. A robotics tournament is similar to a basketball game: Two teams each send two robots — one small and one big — into the match, trying to score as many points as possible. The robots collect and throw different kinds of balls into a basket on the opposite side of the field, scoring points. The team with the most points qualifies for the next round, until the final teams compete against each other.
“I was pretty confident that we were going to win. However, the last match against USC got me nervous,” Jocol said of the final round. “But I had confidence in the robots, and the circumstances made it more exciting.”
Looking forward to the World Championship in April, the CSUN team is eager to compete.
“With our recent success, we definitely think we have what it takes to compete there,” Jocol said. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re expecting to perform really well.”
Adrian Castellon, a junior in mechanical engineering and vice president of the club, emphasized the other teams’ competitiveness and unpredictability.
“Sometimes their whole strategy is to stop the other teams’ strategy, or know how to work around the strategy,” he said. “You can prepare all you want, but you never know which team will be able to counter your strategy, which can cost you the game.”
The CSUN group will compete against top VEX Robotics teams from all over the world — an exciting, yet nerve-wracking experience.
“We’re going up against engineering students from high-tech colleges like New York Institute of Technology or Worcester Polytechnic Institute,” Paqueo said. “We’re not just competing against the best and brightest, but we’re also competing for the prestige of CSUN.”
The VEX Robotics World Championship hosts competitions for students in elementary school, middle school, high school and college. Many students base their college decisions on the robotics achievements they observe at the World Championship, Paqueo said.
“As we do better in competitions — especially at the World Championship, where everyone is watching — we also increase the chances of student enrollment at CSUN, pulling from the brightest kids,” he added.
Club member Erin Kubo, a mechanical engineering junior, said she hopes to attract more young girls to CSUN and the robotics club. She sets an example that female students contribute to STEM fields just as much as their male counterparts.
“[VEX Robotics] gives them the opportunity to try something that they don’t think they can do,” Kubo said. “I want to show them that they can. Especially as a girl, you should just try it and don’t limit yourself.”
She added that she joined the CSUN club with no prior experience in robotics.
“I tried doing a design last year, but it wasn’t that great because I was just starting out,” she said. “But this year, they actually picked my design, so I am the design lead for the small bot. Seeing it work feels great.”
CSUN’s VEX Robotics club encourages students from all majors to join and become more involved in robotics, regardless of their level of experience. Any major can contribute a unique skillset, which can provide significant input in robot design, functionality and techniques, Castellon said. Others can help with club administration.
“You learn a lot of things in the club, like teamwork, believing in your projects and not quitting on them when things are frustrating or when it seems like things might not work out,” Castellon said. “Your team is always there to support you.”