Three teams from Gladstone Secondary are heading to the VEX Worlds high school robotics competition in Louisville Kentucky next week. 

They'll be joined by five other teams from across B.C. at the competition, which will pit their ball-slinging bots against teams from 22 countries.

"Gladstone, over the years, has been the most successful school, or team in Canada, for sure," said teacher and team coach Paul Wallace. "In 2012 we both won and came in second in the world championship, which has never happened and probably will never happen again."

Wallace said last year the school got three out of three teams into the playoff round, but has yet to reclaim the title. 

The annual competition involves creating robots to perform a specific task — this year the 18" by 18" machines have to gather balls and toss them into nets, sort of like basketball.

"Every year is a new challenge; it's something different every year," said Grade 12 student, Neiah Montero, who has been making robots for three years and is on an all-girl team known as Sparkly Princesses.

Robot competition

Neiah Montero, (left) and Angela Li, both in Grade 12, work to get their robot ready for a world-wide competition in Kentucky. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Last year our team was tied for sixth in the world," she said. "We're hoping for the big prize, but we never know, right?"

"I feel that I'm competitive, but I don't set my hopes up too high of winning, because it's very challenging," said Grade 12 student Stanley Shi, who came to Gladstone this year for the robotics facilities. "There's a lot of luck involved."

'Healthy kind of obsession'

The Gladstone students going to Kentucky spend nearly every moment of their spare time in the school's robotics lab, squeezing their other school work in when they can.

"It's our life basically," said Shi, who has made robots since Grade 8.

Robot competition

Grade 12 student Stanley Shi transferred to Gladstone Secondary for the robotics resources. "It’s our life basically," he says. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We're pretty much here until 8 p.m. every day and sometimes even 10," said Montero. 

"When you spend, like, your lunch hours and free blocks in this room, I think it becomes kind of obsessive, but it's a healthy kind of obsession."

"I used to mix in a little bit of stuff, like badminton and cadets, but now it's just full time robotics and school," said Shi. "My grades are still good."

Robot competition

Teacher Paul Wallace says all sorts of different skills can benefit a robot team, from computer programming, to mechanics and building, to actually driving the robot. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"It's wonderful to work in something where the kids are so engaged," said Wallace. "I don't have to do a lot of encouragement to work on the robots; it's more like trying to get them to leave the room when I want to go home at nine o'clock."

"My wife calls herself a robotics widow sometimes, but no, sometimes it does take a lot of time," he said. "Spring break? There was no spring break. We were here pretty much most of the time."

Robot competition

Gladstone Secondary teacher and robot team coach Paul Wallace knows how tough the competition will be at the 2016 VEX Worlds in Kentucky. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Expensive to compete

"This year with the Canadian dollar so low, it's very hard for every person on our team to go," said Montero, adding that the students are trying to raise funds online

"We don't get a lot of funding from our school board, so this year it's costing about $30,000 in total to send three teams to worlds," she said.

Wallace said the robots required to compete cost about $2,500, and then there's the $850 registration fee for each team.

Robot competition

Grade 8 student Keith Herndier is just getting started with robots. "It’s a heck of a lot of fun," he said. "We got booted out. Our bot wasn’t good enough." (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Wallace thinks his teams have a good chance to do well this year, but he's managing expectations.

"I think we'll hold our own. The odds of actually placing in the World's is just — well there's going to be almost 500 high school teams, so you understand the odds are very, very slim."

Other B.C. schools sending teams to Kentucky include Comox's Highland Secondary School, Shawnigan Lake's Shawnigan Lake School, Delta's Seaquam Secondary, and West Vancouver's Collingwood.

Robot competition

Xing Hao Li, Grade 10, is on the only Gladstone Secondary team going to VEX Worlds that isn't made up of senior students. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)