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Texas City High School robotics team returns to world championship

By KATHRYN EASTBURN The Daily News ​ ​ ​Updated

TEXAS CITY

Texas City High School’s robotics program will be represented by 15 students later this month at the VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky. The team has qualified four out of a total 584 robots in the competition, making it the sixth largest competitor among schools from around the world and a reflection of the growth and success of robotics in the district, officials said.

Also this year for the first time, Roosevelt-Wilson Elementary School has competed in a number of robotics competitions and has qualified for the competition in Louisville. Five Roosevelt-Wilson students will attend the championships along with the older students, including two who have served this year as mentors for the younger students, Texas City Independent School District said.

Overseeing this flurry of activity and some lively classroom competition is James Jobe, an engineering and robotics teacher at the high school and coordinator of robotics for the district over the past five years.

“When I first got here, we had some old Lego robots lying around, and I said I could start a program for zero dollars,” Jobe said. “We did that the first year, and the administration saw how excited kids were about it.

“It’s kind of just exploded from there.”

A gift of $25,000 from Marathon Oil Corp. helped jump-start the competition program, providing the required game field to practice for competitions like VEX. Programs at Blocker Middle School have been supported by BP, and Dow Chemical has donated money to the district for robotics programs at two elementary schools.

Jobe, a Pasadena native who studied math in college, said Galveston County is one of the more highly ranked parts of the nation when it comes to competitions like VEX that support students’ interests in engineering, computer programming, mechanics, electronics, the design process and even AP physics, all courses that figure into careers using skills associated with robotics, many of them in industry.

“In everything from aerospace to the chemical industry, they’re using robots not only to inspect pipelines, but flying drones over their plants for overhead inspections,” Jobe said. “Dow is using exoskeletons to move products around their facility, and everything is becoming more automated.”

Texas City High School robotics students have gone on to study mechanical and industrial engineering and have found work in areas where they can apply skills they learned in the program.

“I’ve got a former student doing satellite navigation in the Army,” Jobe said. “There’s another who’s doing electronics on a professional race car crew.”

On Wednesday, Jobe’s classroom at the high school is abuzz with students driving, maneuvering and shooting balls at targets with elaborate, quick-moving robots they created from scratch, practicing skills they hope will lead them to victory at the VEX games.

Levi Chittenden is a senior participating in the program who also works as one of the mentors for fourth-grade students in the elementary program.

“It’s fun,” Chittenden said. “At their age, they probably know more than some of the freshmen entering robotics that I know right now.”

Roosevelt-Wilson’s fourth-grade students have learned how to build, how to wire and how to drive a robot remotely from librarian Ricci Rodgers, an instructor in the program. The high school robotics students have taught Rodgers the math she needed to teach her young students, said Melissa Tortorici, director of communications for the district.

This fast-moving area of study, in which technological changes affect the curriculum constantly, is a natural for collaboration across grades and ages, often putting students in the position of teaching their teachers, Jobe said. The district hopes to expand robotics to all of its elementary campuses next year.

“Our elementary students at Roosevelt-Wilson won a state design award this year,” Jobe said. “That’s not so much about design style as design process. This is engineering, documenting every step in the process.”

Chittenden said his fourth-grade students’ notebooks are more impressive than many he sees among his peers at the high school level.

And robotics is leveling the science and engineering playing field for girls at the district as well, Jobe said.

“Last year, I had one female student in robotics,” Jobe said. “This year I have three; next year I know I’ll have at least five.”

Of the five students from Roosevelt-Wilson competing in the VEX world championships, three are girls. An all-girl team from Blocker Middle School last year won a Skills USA national competition in robotics, and the district has actively pursued grants from organizations supporting women in science and engineering, Tortorici said.

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