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Ola High School’s Robotics Team Delivers on its Ambitious Pursuit of Exceptional

HENRY COUNTY, GA – Ola High School’s (OHS) 5203G robotics team won top honors by securing the Excellence Award at the recent 2024 Georgia VEX State Championship, qualifying for the VEX World Championship in Dallas, Texas, this April.

OHS hosted the tournament in February and came out ahead of the 40 teams that competed. Robotics teams must first qualify in local events and then at the state championship for a chance at world-level competition.

“This opportunity solidifies their accomplishments as a team,” Principal Nick Ellis said. “Our students have been working hard, and to get to this level, they had to compete in Signature Events in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Minnesota and win. Through various awards and victories, they have qualified for Worlds. This sets Ola High School and our students on a stage of national and global recognition. We celebrate this team and their accomplishments!”

The Excellence Award is VEX’s highest accolade, and it was presented to OHS for being the top all-around team for outstanding performance as well as exemplifying overall excellence in building a high-quality robotics program. The OHS team excelled in various judged categories, including demonstrating a student-centered ethos, exhibiting positive team conduct, good sportsmanship, and professionalism, and ranking among the top 30% in various skills and challenges.

The robotics team became a reality at OHS in 2012 under the guidance of VEX Robotics Coach Dr. Christie Schmitt. Dr. Schmitt, an OHS engineering teacher and advisor to the Technology Student Association, also launched a robotics club at Ola Elementary School in 2014 with three second-graders. It wasn’t long before that club, whose members are now part of the OHS team, began to impact the robotics world.

Just a year after forming the robotics club, the elementary school students qualified for the VEX IQ Worlds, and elementary/middle school teams continued qualifying year after year.

Elementary and middle school students compete in VEX IQ Robotics Competitions, while high school students compete in VEX Robotics Competitions (VRC). The high school team, 5203G, has qualified for VRCs each year since it was formed.

VRC teams must have a team or base number to identify the school or organization, followed by a letter to distinguish teams from the same school or organization. The high school robotics clubs chose cars to distinguish their teams. The “g” in Team 5203G is for the Gremlin car, which also inspired the name of the team’s robot and mascot.

Many VEX IQ members who started in elementary school have continued through high school, and consequently, some have as many as 10 years of experience with the robotics club.

“I joined VEX IQ in elementary school because I wanted to make cool robots and be with my friends,” said 11th-grader Katherine Mangual. “I have stayed with VEX because of the community and my ability to create new, innovative things.  Because I love VEX so much, I have focused this year on creating outreach videos for VEX IQ teams to help inspire younger kids.”

The three founding members of the VEX IQ elementary school team, Asha Pandya, Karina Pandya, and Carson Schmitt, are now members of the 5203G high school team. 

“I joined the team after seeing robots at the VEX World Championship when I was in kindergarten,” 11th-grader Carson Schmitt said. “VEX has provided friends and mentors to share a passion and grow my engineering skills.”

Team 5203G has built quite a reputation and is considered an elite team as its Gremlin robot continues to impress, earning the team numerous state, signature, and world-level awards over the last 12 years.

Team 5203G was named tournament champion at two signature, high-level events this school year: Haunted in Nashville, Tennessee, in October, and Sugar Rush in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in December, where it also won the Excellence Award against 78 of the best teams nationwide.

“Ola’s robotics team exemplifies the spirit of innovation and excellence we envision in every one of our school communities,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Carl Knowlton. “Their success showcases their technical skills and highlights the importance of teamwork, creativity, and perseverance in achieving goals. Ola’s robotics program is also in keeping with the Board of Education’s goal for Henry County Schools to be a leader in providing STEM educational opportunities for all students.”

The Gremlin is remarkable in design and functionality, impressing experts and enthusiasts in the robotics world. The students have been working since May 2023 to perfect the robot and enhance its style and performance.

“VEX Robotics is an all-encompassing activity that requires teams to work with each other and other teams throughout the tournament,” Dr. Schmitt said. “It teaches collaboration, teamwork, communication, and more. Throughout the season, the students research, brainstorm, and create multiple iterations of robots. The team exemplifies excellence through its hard work, dedication, and love for robotics.”

Passionate, empowered, and inspired students, an experienced and dedicated coach, and a supportive principal and staff comprise the formula behind the teams’ success.

“Through VEX, I’ve learned that every challenge is an opportunity to grow, innovate, and push the boundaries of what’s possible,” said 11th-grader Sebastian Cedeno.

“The robotics program has clear benefits,” Dr. Knowlton added. “Students learn college, career, and life-ready skills through an in-depth introduction to and immersion in STEM subjects in a stimulating and engaging way. Additionally, there are numerous opportunities for social, emotional, and intellectual growth as students cultivate an impressive network interacting with peers and various industry experts locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Students also develop competencies in presentation, teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving while receiving valuable lessons in collaboration, persistence, and grace in competition. The experience enables students to build strong resumes before completing high school.

“With dedicated students and Dr. Schmitt’s gracious support, Ola High School's robotics program has set a new standard for excellence in high school robotics throughout Georgia,” Director of STEM Innovative Practice Dr. Rabieh J. Hafza stated. “This program aligns seamlessly with the Board of Education’s Community-Inspired Strategic Plan to develop a robotics program at every elementary, middle, and high school to create opportunities, access, and outcomes for all students in Henry County Schools.”

Team 5203G’s incredible success comes in the midst of the district’s plans to open a state-of-the-art STEM high school in 2026 to equip students with in-demand skills and knowledge in partnership with regional STEM industries and Tier 1 Research Institutions.

Team 5203G’s commitment to continuous improvement and exploration has set them on a course to succeed in the April tournament – the largest robotics competition in the world. This will be the third year 5203G will make a high school VEX World Championship appearance. Ola High School robotics teams have qualified for Worlds 11 of the last 12 years. 

“We are so excited that our Ola Mustangs get to compete against the best VEX teams across the entire globe,” Ellis said. “They will continue to learn teamwork, collaboration, and preparation, which they will use for the rest of their lives. The Worlds competition also allows our students to venture out and experience a different area of the country and immerse themselves in a new cultural experience. I am looking forward to how this will continue to have a ripple effect on our student body and its interest in STEM clubs and activities.”

The ALPLA Group (McDonough), Chick-fil-A (Lake Dow), and New House Products have generously supported the Ola robotics teams over the years.

About Henry County Schools

Henry County Schools (HCS) is the eighth-largest school district in Georgia, consisting of 52 schools, including two academies, located about 20 minutes south of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Over the past 20 years, our community has grown in population from 113,000 residents to over 244,000 residents. Since 1999, student enrollment has grown from 21,000 to 43,000 students, and our number of employees has grown from 3,000 to 6,000.

HCS is “In Pursuit of Exceptional,” taking action to advance opportunities, access, and outcomes so that every student in our school district has Exceptional Support, Exceptional Access, and an Exceptional Future. In 2020, our Board of Education adopted our 2021-2026 Community-Inspired Strategic Plan and laid out a clear vision and mission for Henry County Schools. Our vision is to ensure a high-quality, world-class education for every student, and our mission is to empower all students with exceptional opportunities and access that lead to success in a global society.