Spokane student takes second place at national robotics competition

Local middle school student Aidan Willsey was on a team that took second in a national robotics competition last month, working until the last moment to teach his robot how to do the assigned task.

Aidan attends Washington Virtual Academies, an online public school program of the Omak School District. Students from all over the state are signed up with the virtual school, and Aidan was paired with West Side resident Leor Sykes, whom he met in person for the first time at the competition in Washington, D.C. WAVA uses curriculum and materials provided by K12, a Stride company, and it was Stride that hosted the national competition.

Previous Stride robotics competitions were all virtual, with students submitting the code required to make the robots work. The national competition was the first one in which teams worked with the robots hands-on and had to input and perfect the code needed to do the assigned task, which was to grab and move two tubes.

“You would have to go and put the tube on the other side,” Aidan said.

It was a much different experience than the virtual competitions, he said.

“It was hard to figure out how to get the code to work in the physical robot,” he said.

Teams had only a few hours to get their robots up and running. Aidan’s mother, Melinda Willsey, said she watched the teams prepare and was impressed by everyone’s hard work.

“Everybody really celebrated everyone’s accomplishments,” she said. “The progress was amazing. These kids are so smart.”

Aidan has attended virtual schools since the second grade, first in Idaho . His mother said the virtual option works well for her children, particularly her three sons, two of whom have medical challenges.

Aidan said he likes the structure and routine he is able to maintain in an online school and his mother said he is diligent about sticking to his daily class routine. This was the first year K12 has had a robotics program; Aidan said his mother got an email about it early in the year and signed him up for it.

“I’ve always been interested in science stuff,” he said.

He quickly learned that he found robotics interesting. He and his teammate worked together online to develop the coding that they would submit for each virtual competition.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I like that you’re able to use the code to get the robot to do things.”

Since he was new to robotics, he wasn’t expecting to advance to the national competition this year.

“I was definitely surprised,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. … I wanted to see how far I could get.”

Melinda Willsey said she was surprised to get an email notifying her that her son was going to the national competition. She also appreciated that Stride paid for their flight and WAVA paid for their hotel. Her son’s experience with robotics was such a success that now his younger brother is excited to do it when he’s old enough.

Aidan, who’s getting ready to start his freshman year, said he’d like to continue his involvement in robotics. He said the experience helped him decide that he’d like to have a career in robotics or coding.