Greenville-Based Robotics Help Kids Learn


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Teamwork and good communication helps the Greenville team of (left to right) Wyatt Spivey, Jessi Molina, Josue Adame, and Kamden Priest, ready their robot for a trial run.

Photo by Tyler Tindall

Something happens when a kid gets the components of a robot and is challenged to make it work, make it perform some task or even compete against other robots.

Snap this piece with that. Make sure the gears mesh. Position the battery for maximum efficiency. Make sure the components respond well to the onboard artificial intelligence. A kid engages imagination and draws on everything learned and everything that can be learned up to that point.

In short, a desire for learning is created — and not just any learning. Students of all ages explore concepts of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — better known as education’s often missing STEM proficiencies — while “playing” with toy robotics.

Thanks to a unique company in Greenville, robotics motivate and thrill students to learn more and more in Texas and across the nation. 

“I didn’t want to be in the program at first, but then I joined in high school and I learned design principles,” says Madison Kroncke, a senior at Greenville High School. Even before pursuing the study of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, she has already created six tech products for a company through sophisticated CADD design.

This year, Greenville Independent School District (GISD) has more than 100 robotics teams made up of 513 students in grades five through 12. 

“Through the robotics program, I’ve also learned other things like advocacy, public speaking, collaboration, communications, and mentoring,” Madison says.

Innovation First International produces VEX Robotics — the kits, components, and curriculum that gave rise to this learning phenomenon. The company was the brainchild of Tony Norman, an electrical engineer, and Bob Mimlitch, a mechanical engineer, who nurtured a love of robotics from Tony’s garage in Greenville to become an educational force through their high school mentoring service. The company now has more than 300 employees and nine offices worldwide.

“We know what it’s like to get excited about something cool,” Norman says. “We know the magic a student experiences the moment they create something with technology. We’re providing tools which are easy for beginners to master, but will expand with the imagination and experience of their users.”

Students’ love of robotics draws a wider audience when student competitors gather at state, regional, and national locales annually for the VEX Robotics Competition. Houston is the national site for the next three years, but in the past, it’s been held in Orlando, St. Louis, and Atlanta. 


VEX Robotics held its first Girl Powered Flagship event in October at Texas Instruments in Dallas. The mission was to get girls more interested in STEM disciplines. Photo by Innovation First.

Each year in April, Innovation First puts out guidelines and kits for any school’s students to compete. Year-long curriculum aids are available for elementary, middle school, and high school students. University students also participate. The competition is also open to Scout troops, 4H Clubs, and other non-profits.

VEX Robotics projects encourage creativity, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving among groups. The resulting robots are required to accomplish some task like throw or dump cubes across a two-foot fence or hang on a bar. Work by college teams simulate real-world challenges.


The robot named “Vipe” brought Greenville students a fourth-place finish (out of 4,000 teams) at the 2013 world championship competition in St. Louis. The robot amazed the crowd and judges by climbing up and hanging onto a pyramid, as shown here, as well as shooting frisbees into a goal 10 feet away. Photo by Greenville ISD.

The robotics program began in GISD in 1992, due in a big part to the close proximity of Innovation First. One of the first teams from the district — The Robowranglers — has won numerous regional, state, national, and world awards since then, says Adrienne Emerson, GISD director of robotics for grades 9-12.

The robotics curriculum gives kids an expanding knowledge and interest in math, physics, language arts, speech, social skills, art, and research. Ironically, robotics also works to interest students with discipline problems or kids at risk of failing in some subjects, too.

“There are benefits for both ‘book-smart’ and ‘street-smart’ kids,” Emerson says. Already disciplined and studious students get real-world applications and “street-smart” kids are attracted by their love of video games to learn some math and science along the way.

“Robotics makes math and science ‘cool’ by allowing students to design ‘cool’ robots and take them ‘cool’ places for them to compete,” says Johnny Tharp, GISD’s director of VEX Robotics.


All hands on deck as Greenville students work on a practice robot during the build session at a 2014 competition. Photo by Greenville ISD. 

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