Caption: The 2023 Wichita Homeschool Robotics team poses for a group photo, while honoring the organization’s 25 years of competition.

It hasn’t quite turned into an automated function, but a homeschool robotics club in Kansas has made such a habit of winning that in February they were honored at the state capitol.

For the past five years the Wichita Homeschool Robotics team has earned first place at the state Boosting Engineering, Science & Technology (BEST) robotics meet. For three straight years the club has finished first at BEST regionals in Denver, which in 2023 included top competitors from seven other states.

For the most recent tournaments, students were challenged to create robots that could simulate procedures medical technicians might use to treat cardiovascular disease. On the way to being named overall champions at state and regionals, the Wichita team secured several trophies for specific aspects of the competition—from the best marketing presentation to exceptional team spirit.

These honors help illustrate the broad range of educational components the organizers designed for the event. The trophies also established quite a legacy for a club that, at one time, met and worked in the house of a single homeschool family.

According to Student President Jeremiah Shlittenhardt, the club has come a long way in its 25-year existence.

“We’ve learned a lot from the past,” Jeremiah said. He added that much of the team’s recent success can be attributed to the mentorship of former participants—including several of his siblings.

From the Ground Up

Jeremiah and several teammates described the process of preparing for and competing in a BEST robotics event in a recent interview.

The season began in August. Students gathered at the club’s tool shop and testing rooms in a Wichita church basement to select officers and team leaders. The 2023 squad consisted of 24 members, all homeschooled high schoolers.

robotics team working in shop

Homeschoolers begin the process of assembling their robot and display materials at their Wichita workshop.

On kickoff day, the club received a package from BEST headquarters containing all the materials students were allowed to use in building a robot, plus detailed rules for that year’s head-to-head challenge.

“It’s basically a thick booklet,” explained Seth Peniston, who served as robot manager.

After perusing the rules for 2023, Seth and his team set to work building a mockup out of tape and cardboard. This helped students visualize the actual robot, which from year-to-year is constructed from materials such as plastic tubing, plywood, zip ties, metal screws, bicycle tires, piano wire—and the all-important electric motors.

One rule regarding building the robot is paramount.

“You can’t exceed the amount of materials they give you,” said Seth. “You get tested for compliance before the competition, and you’re disqualified if you have too much.”

Team members also documented their work for inspection by judges during the competition.

As Jeremiah explained, “the engineering notebook is probably the most important part.” He said that recording the design process, including comments on features that failed or succeeded, adheres to the concept that the competition should model the real world.

“It’s as if a company was asking an engineering firm to submit proposals,” he added. “We see what the requirements are and how we can meet those.”

More than Engineering

Marketing is an integral part of the competition as well.

“We raise our own finances by getting sponsorship from several different local companies,” Jeremiah explained.

Students also designed and built a graphical presentation that touted the merits of their robot as though they were marketing to prospective clients. “You have to portray it in a way that fits with that year’s theme,” said Jenna Shlittenhardt, the team’s marketing manager.

In keeping with the 2023 motif of “Incision Decision,” Jenna and her teammates crafted 8-by-8-foot placards with graphics mimicking a hospital room. They also dressed a mannequin as a patient. They augmented this display with a PowerPoint slideshow.

Hospital room robotics display

In keeping with the theme for the 2023 competition, the Wichita Homeschool Robotics team’s display mimicked a hospital room—complete with a mannequin as a patient.

All these efforts, of course, culminated in the statewide showdown where the Wichita team ran its robot in three-minute heats against three other machines. Drivers remotely guided their robots in an attempt to complete as many tasks as possible on a clearly marked playing field.

For example, a robot might scrape goo from a concrete tube onto a tray in a process simulating the removal of plaque from an artery. Or, a robot might insert a dryer vent into a plug to emulate a vein bypass.

Robotics playing field

Referees observe as homeschoolers guide their robot through the playing field.

These challenges took place in front of cheering parents and friends.

Lessons and Reflections

The teammates were elated by their performance at the state and regional meets. Their success earned them an invitation to the Kansas House of Representatives on February 1, where they were recognized by state Rep. Susan Humphries.

The students also agree: The way they are educated contributes a great deal to their success.

“The fact we’re homeschooled gives us an advantage,” said Charlie Weddle, the team’s shop manager. Because of their flexible schedules, he added: “We can spend twenty to thirty hours a week doing robotics. We also have parents who are willing to mentor us, so we don’t have to jump in blindly.”

At the same time, the students realize that participating in the robotics club has delivered educational dividends.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Jenna insisted. “I’ve learned new art techniques, how to communicate ideas, and how to get people motivated.”

Caden Heidreick, who led the team that built the robot’s wheels, said the competition prompted him to develop a technique he’ll be able to employ on a regular basis.

“You learn now to troubleshoot—and find out what you’ve done wrong,” he said.

Lastly, Jeremiah said his family’s long-term involvement has taught him how robotics can lead to compatibility in a broad range of applications.

“Just spending that much time together, you really get to form relationships and get to know people,” he affirmed. After all, his older brother married a teammate.