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CSM Robotics Team the ‘Talons’ Advance to Global Stage to Compete at VexU World Championship in Dallas

April 26, 2024

The College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) competitive robotics team – the Talons – is heading to Dallas, Texas next week to defend their title as the best community college robotics team on the global stage at the VexU Robotics World Championship.

CSM’s Talons have participated in four regional competitions this year, ultimately earning their spot at the World Championship based on their skills high score, the 28th best in the world. They also received the Judges Award, which recognizes teams who the judges feel deserve special recognition, at the Mid-Atlantic VEXU Over/Under Tournament held at the University of Delaware in March.

The team has no shortage of such accolades earned over the years. They’ve collected more than one dozen trophies – all displayed in a case in the ST Building lobby at the college’s La Plata Campus – for design, innovation and their work in the community introducing local school children to robotics. Earlier this year, the Talons hosted the Southern Maryland VEX Robotics Competition Tournament for middle and high school students at CSM, volunteering as scorekeepers, referees and judges at the tournament.  

But what the team members will tell you they relish the most isn’t the awards; instead it is surprising people with what community college students are capable of as they repeatedly compete against four-year universities, and win. Programmer Eli Gerstman has outfitted the team’s robot with the highest-level positioning sensor accessible to VexU, so advanced that it is being used by only a few teams. Bailey Burroughs, the team president, is a master 3-D printer who hones his design for each new competition. And Jonathan Gross, the team’s vice president, shared how he heard gasps in the crowd when the Talons drivers undertook an aggressive strategy against a top-ranked team.

“These students are taking the hardest classes CSM offers and many of them are working,” said Talons coach and Math and Engineering Professor Jim Cleary. “And yet, they spend an incredible amount of time in the lab. They can code and build with the best in the world. It’s a pleasure being around such dedication and talent.”

This year’s VexU competition is titled “Over Under,” and it is played almost like a soccer match between two teams of two robots each — albeit a soccer match with 60 pyramid-shaped balls simultaneously on the field. The match starts with 45 seconds of fully autonomous play, where the robots are controlled entirely by code, followed by a minute and 15 seconds where drivers use remote controls to direct the robot. The result is two minutes of chaos as robots catapult balls across the field, protect their goal, try to clear the other team’s balls out of their goal, and, seconds before the buzzer sounds, lift themselves off the ground for bonus points.

Teams’ overall scores are based on their performance in this competitive round and a series of skills demonstrations, where the teams show off their programming skills and robots’ capabilities for judges.

The Talons team includes engineering, mathematics, information technology and business students, and even a 16-year-old who participates despite not being allowed to join as an official team member until he finishes high school. Some came to the team with experience in VEX at the middle or high school level, while others were driven by a sense of curiosity or recruited by friends. According to Cleary, they are coders, designers and builders who combine their skills to tackle a new challenge posed by VexU each year.

Gross said the team can be so successful, in part, because they know they have the backing of CSM and community partners.

“We have support from the CSM Foundation, partners like the Patuxent Partnership, SMECO and Avian, and our mentors,” he said. “We know that whatever we need, they will get for us, whether that’s the funding to travel to World Championship or scholarship money to help CSM students interested in robotics.”

With half of the Talons heading off to four-year schools this fall, the team is working on recruiting new members while there is still time for veteran Talons to train them. The learning curve is steep but exciting; one new member, Skye Blado, remembers how her very first day as a Talon was spent at a competition in Salisbury.

“If you’re interested, we can find something for you to do,” said Cleary. “Once a student comes through the door, they usually stay.”

For now, though, the team is fully focused on Dallas and their goal of making it through two rounds of eliminations to the qualifying rounds, which would mark them as one of the best teams in the world, community college or not. The last time they achieved this feat was 2019.

And regardless of the outcome of this competition, the team said one thing is certain: on the last day of the VexU tournament, next year’s challenge will be revealed. The Talons will come home to Maryland, break for a week to take their finals, then get to work to prepare for next year.

Considered the largest robotics competition in the world, the VEX Robotics World Championship, is presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation and the REC Foundation. It will be held April 25 through May 3, 2024 at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas. The annual event will bring together the top VEX IQ Robotics Competition, VEX Robotics Competition, and VEX U teams from around the globe to celebrate their accomplishments and participate in the 2023-2024 games to be crowned champions.

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