NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Schools across the Empire State, and the nation, are doubling down on STEM education as well as clubs and organizations.
One Western New York middle school is making it ultra-competitive, heading to the VEX Robotics World Championship. This year they’re calling the competition "Slapshot."
This version looks much less like the 1977 hockey movie classic and a little bit more like K’Nex.
"We design and build robots to meet a certain performance so we can do all these tasks on the field," said seventh-grader Dominic Condino, who is part of the only teams from his grade to make it to the world competition.
Like any other contest, there are rules.
"There's 45 pucks on the field and we want to clear all of them out," said eighth-grader Aiden Chase. "To get a point for every puck we cleared to get our highest score possible we try to shoot them into the purple blue and green zone."
Seventh and eighth graders from around the globe making these whirring, shooting and reaching robots from scratch. Of course, not without some trial and error.
"This is like our 10th robot actually," Chase added. "Through the designs, like we use prototypes to see like what was best at grabbing the blue tower, what's best at grabbing the yellow tower what's best at grabbing like the purple tower."
Most of the school year has been spent competing and revising.
"When something goes wrong, I do this in the journal," said eighth-grader Mikayla Parise. "We state three possible solutions to the problem and then we kind of go through all of them and we see which solution works best. One of our problems was that we didn't pass inspection because one of the pieces on our robot was too far out. So we had to move that piece in, just imagine that problem was fixed."
At the end of the day, four teams from LaSalle Prep alone are heading to Dallas to show their stuff with a reputation of hardware to uphold. It's part of what brings some students in.
"I was debating between going to a few different schools and then this was one I really wanted to go to because my brother went here, but also because of robotics going into this. We are this is a very competitive program," said eighth-grader Lillian Misterkiewicz. "We're always top-ranked one of the top-ranked teams in the world, at least one of us is."
Of course, it’s not all about the trophies and banners.
"It teaches me a lot of life skills," said Condino. "It teaches me a lot even teamwork when working with other teams. We have to build strategies and talk to them, be able to communicate what we want to do and what they can do on their own."
The personal growth of these kids is not lost on the adults in the room.
"Through experience, they've spent 500 hours building a robot, that's insane. And for them it's they just love doing it," said one of the program advisors Michael McGrath.
"We know that after a year of already doing this, that if we really put our minds to it and if we try hard then we come down here and put hours into our work that we will succeed and will come as far as we did," added eighth-grader Analie Copeland.
The dedication that’s backed by this school district in Western New York.
"It's not cheap," McGrath added. "It's a lot of time. And we're lucky that we have kids that want to spend sometimes five hours a day doing robotics."
The Robotics teams and staff hope showing what they can do on the national stage will inspire other districts to offer support so other kids can get in on the game.
"Something like this if they could find the staff to do it. Again, what the kids get out of it is just phenomenal," said the original club's founder Edward Wisniewski. "It's just one other way that they get exposed to something they want to do.
But for now, these kids have a trip from Niagara Falls to the Lone Star state to kick some ro-butts.
"I think I just want to have a lot of fun with it because we don't know what's going to happen next year," added Parise. "We don't know if we're gonna make it again next year. So if this is the last year I make it I want it to be really fun."
The team from LaSalle Prep heads out this weekend to compete in Dallas over the course of five days. The VEX Robotics World Championship is hosting several levels and varying competitions over the course of these games. Advisors for this say the skills these kids have makes them not only almost ready for the tech workforce in some situations, but some recruiters from tech companies regularly attend competitions when recruiting for years out.