Middle Schoolers vs. High School Teams: what to encourage for competitions?

I mentor middle schoolers who go up against mostly high school teams and I have an on-going debate with myself about what to encourage the kids to design. The obvious approach is to have them try to build a robot that can “do it all”: score cubes, build a skyrise tower, etc. like they see in all the videos.

However, when they actually start trying to build robots that can “do it all”, I always worry that their capabilities might not match their ambitions, so there is always a chance they will end up with a mess of machinery that somewhat resembles a robot but it’s one that can’t do anything more than flail around the field, fall apart, then collapse and die in front of the spectators (moms, dads, little sisters who like to squeal “toldja so!”). Often, I’m worried the middle schoolers are no match for the high school teams and they simply get crushed by the superior technology of the high schoolers. Consequently, they might rarely get picked for an alliance. Consequently, they get discouraged. I tell them it’s an artifact of going head-to-head against kids 3-5 years older than they are, but I don’t express sympathy very well.

So my internal debate runs something like this: why not make the kids more appreciative of the larger strategy of the game. In other words, why not encourage them to build relatively simple robots that do things like block really well. By themselves, they wouldn’t do very well, but their supreme blocking capability might make them attractive to a very good high school team that wants to bog down their opposition.

For example, I could easily see middle schoolers being capable of building a robot that is 18 inches x 18 inches x 6 inches tall. It would be little more than a “steel brick on wheels”, but with an 8-10 motor drive it would be able to run around the field and make life really difficult for all of these dainty high-altitude scissor lifts with their high-precision cube-bombing systems and 4-motor drives. By spending less time on building and perhaps more time on programming, they might even be able to buzz to the other side of the field and wreak havoc with their opponent’s autonomous, too.

Okay, so I can see this being an attractive strategy from a “win the game” standpoint. But I personally feel uneasy about encouraging the kids to specialize in becoming expert nuisances. I have seen how people react to wallbots at tournaments - it’s not so pretty. On the other hand, I can see how a robot designed to do nothing but block could really become an attractive game-changer in SkyRise, especially considering how tall these robots are getting and how prone they might be to falling over if they need to be continuously out-manuevring a vexatious high-powered “steel brick on wheels”.

Anyway, I just wanted to ask people what they think about this. I’m guessing the wallbot aficionados would be thrilled with the idea. But I’m not sure anybody else would. For one thing, nobody likes to see their fancy $5K robot have a bad hair day all because of a squat, high-density pushbot built by a bunch of 6th graders. :stuck_out_tongue: On the other hand, I’m curious to know if a good high school team would think they could benefit from an alliance partner that does practically nothing but cause the opposition lots of headaches.

I’m interested in hearing comments of any kind. :slight_smile:

Yeah, it’s a good idea. Go for it.

I’ve had experience building and working with robots like this. If your defensive robot is reliable and you are good at driving it, then the good teams will pick you (often because they just don’t want to play against you).
A fast 8-motor X-drive should be really effective as a defensive robot this year. You should be able to ruin the autonomous routines of anyone who leaves the protected zone, and you can knock over the pyramid of cubes, making a mess on their side of the field. Zip around and keep you base in between your opponents and the goal.
This would be a nice alternative to the frustration of skyrise offense. Build it fast, and spend lots of time practicing driving, running through scenarios, and practicing what to do when the offensive robots do x.

Robots like this have popped up over the years but those games had much more direct-adversarial gameplay than Skyrise. Because it’s illegal to pass into your opponents’ safe-zone and interfere with the building of their Skyrise, a defensive pushbot can’t neutralize scoring like it could in Toss Up or Sack Attack.
A wallbot is a different story; how strategically valuable an expanding defensive robot is this year remains to be seen. Those are very challenging to make, however, and starting your middle-schoolers off with a wallbot may not be the best idea.

Remember that most tournaments have 3-team alliances. As our team’s scout, when selecting alliance partners, I look for these things in the 3rd robot and team, and in all partners:

  1. Reliability. A robot that doesn’t work is not a good alliance partner. However, if a robot can do one thing (for example, JUST build skyrises or JUST score cubes) dependably, then they will move much higher on my pick list. For middle schoolers, focus on making a simple robot work well, and then add capabilities once you have mastered one thing.
  2. Autonomous scoring. The Autonomous bonus is crucial this year and if you can score your preload on a goal in auton then someone will pick you. Those 10 points are a major advantage in the game.
  3. Adaptability. Usually our 3rd alliance members are younger teams and if they’re going to work with us they have to be willing to listen to our strategies. If an experienced, high-seeded team asks you to coordinate with them in a certain way, then it’s a good idea to listen to them. You might like your strategy a lot but they’re the team that has been winning matches- they know about how to do it.

Focus on making a simple scoring robot. Perhaps start with a claw on a 6-bar that can score on the short goals and build 2 or 3 skyrise sections. Then at the next tournament either make it a little bit taller or make it hold 2 cubes. Then move it up one more notch at the 3rd tournament, and so on. The team will learn the most this way and it will prepare them best for their future years, so that someday they can be the epic high school team that crushes the opposition.

True, but higher-level matches will still come down to non-protected scoring on posts. Also, the lack of direct adversarial game play means that there is a greater niche for man-to-man defense robots and that offensive robots will just be more susceptible because they won’t be accustomed to fighting other robots.

Yes but if these kids were going to be able to make it to worlds they generally have to win against high school teams. Also not everyone’s goal is to get to worlds mabey it’s to win a competition.

Another problem that my team faces as being a middle school team is that the higher levle teams get to practice 5 times a week and we only get to practice for 2 hours a week. Because of this we plan simple robots like last year a six bar with a top roller. Even though this wasn’t the most advanced robotit still could compete and you could have fun doing it which is all that matters.

Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that. I got an official answer as to whether or not it’s illegal to block a non-protected tile that an opposing team might be using to build their skyrise tower and it sounds to me like it’s fair to “interfere” in that way.

Because I noticed a lot of teams must go outside their protected zone to build a skyrise tower, it seems natural to me to block those non-protected tiles. I think a very maneuverable “steel brick on wheels” could do that job without the possibility of doing anything illegal, like pinning, etc. Not only that, I think such a simple robot could continuously harass a robot on the field, getting in front of it, knocking away cubes just as it goes to reach for them, or simply throwing its body in the path of a grey post, etc.

So far, most high school teams seem to be struggling just to score their own points; I haven’t seen too many blocking-type strategies. But it seems to me that as soon as teams get the hang of scoring, they will realize that one of the ways of tipping the scales in their favor is to block, etc. I personally don’t like the philosophy of wallbots, and I agree they are very hard to build, but I think an armored mobile “steel brick on wheels” would make an attractive middle school strategy. If nothing else, something 6 inches tall can’t topple over and break itself and therefore take itself out of the game for the rest of the day, which is something I foresee happening with the taller robots.

Last year I noticed that the high school alliance captains would usually use the middle schoolers for nothing but blocking anyway, so this year I’m just thinking maybe it would make sense to just embrace that concept and suggest such a “steel brick on wheels” as a viable alternative. But I just feel guilty about doing so. It seems like a such a wicked, maybe even mean-spirited, idea. :confused:

I would suggest building an eight-motor drivetrain, and have a two-motor elevator lift or RD4B for Skyrise assembly, with a passive Skyrise grabber. That way, you can still be useful scoring-wise, especially if your partner can’t build the Skyrise, and eight motors, even at 1.6:1, should be able to shove all the 1.6:1 or even 2:1 4-motor drives going around. If your students are up to it, a pneumatic shifter on such a robot could be extremely effective - dash across the field at something ridiculous like 3:1 and then slow down to 1:1 to shove people around.

The robot should stick to playing support; if your partner is an offensive powerhouse, it could build up the Skyrise quickly and/or harass the opposing team. If you get stuck with a dead robot, pushbot, or another defense bot, you can build up the Skyrise for points and possibly score cubes with another passive mechanism. From what I’ve seen, for finals picks, alliances usually have either three efficency bots or two efficency bots and a defense bot. I would personally pick a defense bot over a third scorer any day, simply because there usually aren’t a lot of good defense bots out there, and so teams often don’t know how to play against them. Also, typically by the third pick, there are relatively few strong bots left, and alliances are defaulting to third and fourth picks as the best bots are scooped up. A good or even decent defense bot is preferable to an okay offense bot, especially if the defense bot also has some other support functions available.

Hey Guys,

VRC Competitions in Texas have a history of getting a bit rough, and our poor Middle-Schoolers usually get crushed in the process, but hey – that’s what toughens them up! :wink:

As for defense in Skyrise, we competed on Saturday at Galena Park, and our robot Floyd III was paired with two great teams–veterans 118 from Clear Lake and and a younger team, Discobots Alpha. We faced 3 experienced, well-trained teams from Team Kaos (Galena Park) in the finals. Although our robots were slightly more advanced with faster Skyrise building and higher cube capacity – their defensive driving skills were outstanding, and some of their defensive strategies took us by surprise this early in the season. As a result, they won the tournament and opened everyone’s eyes to the defensive possibilities of Skyrise. We truly thank them for that! :slight_smile:

We had been thinking that Skyrise would be a dull, repetitive and non-interactive game, but Team Kaos proved us wrong. They descored as much as they could, herded our cubes to “inconvenient places” while also ramming and jamming against us at every opportunity as we were trying to load our cube-hoppers. This caused us enough distraction for them to win the match, although it was close… Congrats to Galena Park for the win and for hosting a superb competition!

So to answer your question about having Middle School teams build strong, defense-oriented robots in hopes of getting picked for an alliance, I say YES. But, they must be VERY careful to follow the rules to the letter. No tipping, no encroaching on the opponent’s colored tiles, etc. Herding cubes with powerful drive-trains and blocking opponents from scoring will be a big deal this year, and middle-school teams that can do that will most likely be picked.

One last thought: Winning competitions is a short-lived experience, while knowledge and wisdom will last a lifetime. So, if you’d rather shoot for the stars and build that super-complex monster-bot (assuming you’re okay with splattering on the battlefield) then go for it!

I competed in middle school for two years and we always had people complaining about how it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t but you have to lay with them. Sometimes you have to go big or go home.

My point is that high school teams have older kids who usually have more experience, and you can gamble between going to be reliable and shooting for the best robot possible that can beat the high school teams. You have to make the choice.

Also a defensive bot is a robot that I think could be very successful in skyrise, and wallbots are not always complex they don’t have to block the whole field.

It worked well enough last year for the second to last ranked robot in Engineering to get picked (and go on to win).

I’ve had too many matches where my alliance was designed to do everything and ends up doing nothing, and I would rather have an alliance that could at least play some good defense. You don’t have to reduce the design to a “steel brick on wheels.” You could add some other creative functions. 2915C was a floppy scoop on a 8 motor cube, but it could actually stash bucky balls one at a time and descore big balls to the hang zone faster than a lot of side roller bots.

A blocking cube robot with strong auton and good driving is a much better alliance than a dysfunctional efficiency robot, but convincing teams in the top 8 may be difficult.

I mentor a Middle School team that did well against HS teams last year. There were quite a few MS teams in CA that gave HS teams a run for their money.

I always encourage my team members to put together a bot that would compete against HS teams only because all-MS tournaments are very few and far between. Keep the bot simple, use sensors to help with autonomous but only the sensors that they can understand and figure out in a short period of time.

They should learn their bot very well so that they can fix it on a dime and improve on it throughout the season. Most of all…learn to drive it very well. They may have a bot that has all the bells and whistles, but if they do not know how to drive it, then they are not maximizing their bot’s full potential.

Encourage your kids that they can hang with the big boys. Don’t plan on being mediocre. let them reach for the stars, but at the same time, your job is to keep them grounded enough so that they build a competitive robot given the amount of time that they have working on it.

Good luck!

If your teams need any more encouragement, take a look at the current skills rankings - 7 of the top 10 teams for Robot Skills are middle school teams, as well as 4 of the top 10 Programming Skills.

I’m a high schooler on a robotics team, but I am also mentoring middle school teams. My personal thought is to have the middle school kids compete at their very best. If being a defensive robot is the best then I say go for it. However, if they can build and program and very good robot then they should.

Karthik’s response in that thread may not explicitly ban such interference, but the rules as written do:

At most local tournaments, skyrises are going to be worth enough points to win most matches, so blocking only the gray goals won’t have a hugely significant effect against the more efficient high school teams.

Also remember that one steel brick on wheels can only harass one opponent, leaving the match in a 1v1 situation. This strategy depends solely on your ally being better at scoring than the opponent that you’re not harassing.

Many teams suffer from a tendency to be too ambitious. If you start with a simple scoring robot, which can’t score on all the goals or build all the skyrise sections, but can do what it does reliably, then that is a much safer bet than a box that scuttles about the field.

Also remember that the point of this competition is educational. How much are the middle schoolers going to learn from only building a drive base and then ramming other robots with it?

About how well a push bot can do in a tournament, it really depends on your driver. Consider the above case.

In the video, the elevator lift on red alliance, team 5203, is the third robot of the champion alliance. I am not entirely sure about motor allocation, possibly 8 motor base, but they do have an exceptionally strong base. Paired with 25 lbs of weight, it qualifies as a steel brick in toss up. But in this case more alunimun.

They basically blocked 1961c inside the starting zone for about half of the match. Remember 1961c is also a world level team, toss up science division champion.

When talking about just what robot to build, push bots can do well by blocking the core of opposing alliance. But games change. Drivers may deal with the blocking differently. I always believe that no matter what you build, winning takes comprehensive effort of a team. 5203 Ola Mustangs is an experienced and strong team, and you can see how much effort they put into driving.

I dunno. It seemed to me that Karthik was reasonably explicit that such a blocking move is perfectly legal:

That’s a good point, and it’s one I promote far above any “need” to win. However, I also know the younger kids hate being crushed all the time by older kids, so I have to weigh the possibility they might give up in despair rather than do whatever they can and still feel relevant to a tournament, even with their lower-level abilities.

I am the instructor for our middle school teams and we ran into the middle school vs high school last year. After the first tournament I knew we had to up our game fast! After lots of rebuilds and cutting metal, we wound up in the finals at TSA state. We were the last middle school team standing and really gave the high schoolers a run for their money in the finals till our bot basically destroyed itself (funny long story).
Anyway… I don’t like that there is not a separate middle school division in VRC in our state, but I as a teacher have to deal with it. It truly believe it is all in attitude, effort, and planning. I have told my teams to focus on being an offensive monster! Do not worry about blocking others… just score score score!!!

Go in and dominate… make them remember who your team is through your strategy and driving!

We run into this all the time. Consistently getting squished by high schoolers has a negative effect on retention.

Luckily they changed the states rules to qualify middle schoolers separate from high schoolers as middle school was cannon fodder for many a high school team last year. More local events have middle school divisions this year too. (Thanks Jim and RECF)

However, I am not saying treat them all with kid gloves. We did have a team step up and earn their way into worlds while competing against high schoolers and getting a coveted PA world’s spot. Team 90C Cyclops won the programming skills competition in PA.and then went on to win the Think Award in their Middle School division at Worlds last year. I would like to have sent 2-3 more middle school teams last year. We’ve had success in previous years too and I can easily brag about them too.

Middle school grades are a point of emphasis for us. Some teams learn a lot by going against high schoolers, but playing up at every tournament can be very daunting. It is very good experience for them and makes them better roboteers. But only some of the time please. Over our 16 teams of middle schoolers, maybe 2-3 can take on the older kids and consistently beat them. Another set can be competitive, but another set is too young and just getting experience at this point. Again, consistently and mercilessly squished is not good. Playing a few matches up a grade is very good.

The capability of a sixth grade team of middle schoolers in their first year is different than a first year team in 9th grade due to more science background, more maturity, and even physical attributes to cut metal and put the robots together. I don’t see many other kinds of competitions pitting high schoolers against middle schoolers.

But as those subset of middle school teams get good, they can definitely hold their own against high schoolers. Some of the best driven teams in the world are in Middle School - Shanghai Luwan Teannage Center, Singapore teams like Hai Sai Catholic School, etc. They show it every year. Pit them against the high schoolers any year. (Do we need to make a grudge match/open betting area at worlds like a back room of pool tables where the real action is? :rolleyes: )

As for roughness - locally we get rough too and have fun doing it. We have Haverford (now all high school but many were winning middle school teams) and we’ve seen very tough high school competition too - the Joneses (now graduated), Calvert Hall (saw them in Harrisburg last year), and ACME would come bet us up pretty good too. Good tough competition during the season helps a lot more for you than it does the high schoolers.

Our club has about 100 kids in Vex grades 6-12 and nearly 50 in FLL in grades 4-6. We have more kids in the Vex middle school than high school program - 16 middle school teams and 7 high school teams. High school workload, and life gets to be too much for a big commitment for robotics so we see that dwindle quite a bit. We’ll continue to emphasize middle school learning in robotics as it is probably most critical ages to get kids to want to have a STEM based career. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do anyway? Well, that and not have them move back in with us when they get done college…

But consistently getting squished by the big kids with up to 7 years of Vex experience is not exactly helpful to a newcomer. Work to get more middle school teams in your area and get middle school events started if you need more age appropriate competition - or travel. Hawaii has a good middle school vex program but a bit expensive to send the team for a weekend. :slight_smile:

If you send 16 teams of middle schoolers, that should be enough to warrant an entire middle school division. That is usually the amount that warrants one here in Michigan.
Does your group host any tournaments? Perhaps you should have a middle-school only competition and have your high schoolers volunteer to help run it and help the middle school teams rather than smear them.