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Education / Robotics / Youth

BrandywineBOTS is finding success in making robotics accessible for everyone

Born out of the pandemic, the VEX program supports kids who want to build robots, regardless of background and ability to pay — even if they don’t want to compete.

A recent VEX robotics competition. (Courtesy BrandywineBOTS)
Updated 3/2/2024: The location of the March 9 championship event has been corrected.
Every Wednesday, about 150 kids convene at the Bellevue Community Center in Wilmington to build robots.

The BrandywineBOTS Innovation Space, as it’s called, is home to the Delmarva region’s largest youth robotics program and one of the largest VEX Robotics programs on the East Coast.

It started in the late ‘10s when Jason Heller and Chris Lake, two dads with kids at Springer Middle School, volunteered to coach the school’s newly-formed robotics team. Neither had a background in engineering — a detail that might sound limiting but, in reality, they say, freed the kids up to be the designers, builders and coders with minimal help.

Then came 2020, with its COVID lockdowns that closed the schools and canceled extracurricular activities.

An opportunity recognized

“We were the only parent-run program — all the other programs are run by teachers and staff members — which gave us a different kind of freedom,” Heller told Technical.ly. They packed up boxes of parts and set up folding tables in their driveways, where the kids and their friends would build robots and set up competitions.

“We were still competing and none of the other schools were,” Heller said. “So we had kids starting to reach out to us from the high schools saying, ‘Any way that we can build with you guys?’”

And with that, high school teams started building with the middle school group.

Heller and Lake recognized the opportunity. With his experience coaching at Springer under his belt, Heller, along with former Talley Middle School VEX coach J. Heather Handler, formed BrandywineBOTS as a nonprofit K-12 program with a mission to make robotics accessible to everyone.

“At the time, it was just six secondary schools in Brandywine School District,” Heller said. “Then the following year, we expanded to anybody who attended a school that didn’t have robotics opportunities. And then the third year, we opened it up to everybody.”

Competition, if you want it

BrandywineBOTS is a VEX Robotics program, part of a nationwide ecosystem of programs geared toward age groups from pre-kindergarten through college. Each year, VEX releases a game that teams play in competitions locally, regionally and, ultimately, at the World Championship.

BrandywineBOTS plays on two VEX levels: IQ, which is an elementary and entry-level middle school program that runs for six months of the year; and VRC, the more competitive program that runs a 12-month season.

In December, the BrandywineBOTS Innovation Hub, in partnership with Bellevue Community Center, launched, thus solidifying the model created for the program.

“We have something for everybody,” Heller said. “We have huge groups of kids who just want to come and have fun and build robots with their friends, and we have groups of kids that are intent on getting to the World Championship every year, and we support both.”

Keeping costs down

Another game-changer has been sponsorships. Last year was the first time BrandywineBOTS took on sponsors, and already their list is impressive: NASA, Dell and Google are among them, as well as local sponsors like Agilent and Chemours.

“Back in the school-based programs, kids had amazing concepts and designs, but we couldn’t afford to build them, Heller said. “Now there is no restriction. If they can design it and prove the concept, we’ll supply whatever they need to build it.”

Funding also supports the BrandywineBOTS Urban Promise community partnership that offers no-cost opportunities to kids who would otherwise be shut out of the game.

“Our goal is to keep pushing the cost down for the families,” Heller said. “We don’t even come close to covering our costs with what we charge the families, but that’s so important, to push that cost down even even further. We’re getting there.”

This year, BrandywineBOTS is hosting both the IQ regional championship and the VRC regional championship. On March 9, the VRC championship at Ogletown Baptist Church in Newark will determine which teams will be invited to the World Championship in Dallas.

Heller anticipates that multiple BrabdywineBots teams will be among the teams to compete in Texas.

Companies: VEX Robotics
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