For Hesston High School senior Laura Van Bergeijk, robotics runs in the family.
Seeing her brother be part of the inaugural year of the Hesston Robotics program led her to join the team when she entered high school.
Since joining the Hesston team, though, Van Bergeijk has carved her own path. Not stopping there, she also became a part of the Newton High School RaileRobotics program as a sophomore.
Now in her senior year, Van Bergeijk is experiencing an unprecedented amount of success — claiming a regional championship in Olathe with RaileRobotics and recently (with her teammate, Ally Weaver) earning the Build Award at the National VEX Robotics competition in Des Moines, Iowa.
"The best part was probably showing it to (Hesston coach Trevor) Foreman because he teared up a little," Van Bergeijk said.
"I'm still wrapping my head around it. It's just amazing to have a judge say, 'I've been judging for 10 years and I've never seen a robot with a suspension chassis,' " Foreman said. "I told them (Van Bergeijk and Weaver) afterwards, once I was done crying, I said 'this bot is never getting taken apart.' "
Van Bergeijk and Weaver had to record their design process in a notebook and also submit a video to the panel of judges prior to the national competition to be considered for the award. Following video submissions, 21 teams (out of 250 competing, from 41 states and four countries) were selected to be interviewed for the final round of judging at nationals.
An honor just to make the final cut, the duo went on to make history as the first Hesston team to claim an award at the national competition (after years of success at the state level).
While Van Bergeijk admitted her schedule can get a little hectic when the RaileRobitcs season (though shorter) is in high gear — splitting her time between the FIRST and Vex Robotics competitions — it is something for which she truly fosters a passion.
"I think it's just really fun to build things and be creative," Van Bergeijk said. "There's not really any other class like it because it doesn't feel like a class; you're just working on other things."
Roles for each competition do differ, Van Bergeijk admitted. While she is involved in the entire design and build process with Vex Robotics at Hesston (where smaller robots and teams are utilized), her role is more specialized with RaileRobotics — as the team of 16 focused on specific tasks in getting ready for this year's competition.
For Van Bergeijk, that task was centered on programming — meaning she also got to drive the robot in the team's regional win. It was also good practice for next year, as she will be majoring in Electrical Engineering at Wichita State University.
"That was my job on the FIRST robot — programming and wiring everything — so that was really good preparation. I don't know what I'll be doing, but I would hope it's similar," Van Bergeijk said. "I didn't know what kind of engineering I wanted to go into before that, so it helped me discover what I really wanted to do."
Essentially, Van Bergeijk said she hopes to continue doing what she has worked on through the robotics programs at WSU (and beyond). Even if she were not majoring in engineering, though, both she and Foreman noted the skills picked up through robotics — problem solving, teamwork, time management, etc. — are useful in a variety a careers.
Robotics has already bore a lot of fruit for Van Bergeijk, but the payoff may not be over just yet. Winning at nationals — which she has competed at with RaileRobotics, as well — qualified Van Bergeijk (and her teammate) for the Vex Robotics World Championship at the end of the month in Louisville, Ky.
"There's the possibility they're not done winning awards," Foreman said. "They could keep adding to the trophy case."
"It's probably defined my whole high school experience and it's definitely a positive thing," Van Bergeijk said. "It's a great experience for anyone, even if you're not going to be an engineer."
Competition at the Vex Robotics World Championship will start on April 24.