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Where It All Began

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

We tried Little League. We tried swim team. We tried soccer and golf and Cub Scouts.

But the only thing my 9-year-old son really wanted to do was play with Legos, puzzles, and Minecraft. Wes was infatuated with machines, robots, and Rube Goldberg contraptions. He could spend hours fiddling with blocks.

Surely, there must be a way to channel this interest into something more social, I thought.

That was 2016. I went online and searched for things like "Lego club" and "robot club" and "programs for kids who love science." Aside from a few summer camps, I didn't find much.

Then my friend, Mike, told me about a program his kids were doing called the VEX Robotics Competition. They had formed teams with friends and were building robots and using them to compete in an international challenge against other teams. He invited me and Wes to a tournament to see what we thought. It was the coolest thing ever. The kids were having so much fun. It was like a sport for Legos, complete with referees and spectators.

Wes (center) and his buddy, Andrew, competing in the 2017 VEX IQ World Championships.

I reached out to a few families I had known from Cub Scouts and asked them if they wanted to start a team. Within a few weeks, we had our first robot kit and were meeting in my garage every week. A few months later, the kids competed in their first tournament. Then they made it to the State Championships. Then they got to the World Championships.

We were hooked.

My son's team, Synonyms of Awesome, is still competing today. They've added a few more members, a bit more facial hair, and a bunch of trophies on the shelf. But most important, they have found "their thing."

The experience inspired me to try to get more kids involved in robotics.

When Mike and I started RoboKai in 2019, we focused on the VEX IQ Competition that we were most familiar with. RoboKai formed five teams that season, and three of them made it to the State Championships. We had big plans for the next season.

Then the pandemic hit, the tournaments shut down, and we were left wondering what was next.

So, we charted our own course. We moved everything in-house and came up with our own games and challenges. It has been hugely popular with our members.

But I have always wanted to get back to the VEX IQ Competition. It's a different experience than building for battles and fun. It fosters teamwork, project management, and other skills that are in high demand among today's employers. Kids who come out of competition robotics programs are much more likely to get scholarships and high-paying jobs than their peers.

And that's why we are going back.

We recently opened registration for the 2022-2023 VEX IQ Competition season. RoboKai will form up to eight teams to compete in this year's game, called Slapshot. Kids who sign up for our Competition Membership will join a team of 3-4 other students who will build a robot and show the world what they can accomplish.

RoboKai's first teams competing in the 2020 State Championships

I am excited to get back into competition robotics. We have some brilliant young minds in our club, and I think we have what it takes to compete for a spot in the World Championships. Several kids are already chomping at the bit to get started.

My son, Wes, is now Coach Wes at the club and will be helping with the teams. We have several other high school students working at the club who also have played on competition teams before and will bring their experience and positive energy to the table.

If you have a son or daughter who matches the description of Wes when he was 9, consider giving competition robotics a try. It has been a life-changing experience for all of the kids I've known who competed. It has given them confidence, comradery, and a path toward a great career.

It truly is the "smart sport."

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