Muncie Southside’s robotics team fosters STEM learning

A robot built by Brian DeRome’s students sits ready to go March 19 at Muncie Southside Middle School. Once built the robots are used to collect blocks and put them in a basket. Andrew Berger, DN
A robot built by Brian DeRome’s students sits ready to go March 19 at Muncie Southside Middle School. Once built the robots are used to collect blocks and put them in a basket. Andrew Berger, DN

After a school day ends at Muncie Southside Middle School, most students return home, but a select few enter Brian DeRome’s classroom to learn about robotics.

They wander in to the white-covered brick classroom, with chatty conversation about homework assignments and the upcoming practice. 

They get to work, busy hands sifting through tubs of gears and miscellaneous wheels that sit across the marble-floored classroom, busy minds locked in on coding sequences on their laptops. The soft humming of 200 RPM motors brings a project to life — a student-made robot, all done after the final school bell rings.  
Two of the five teams representing Southside’s robotics program were given the opportunity to compete at the Indiana VEX IQ Robotics Middle School Championships at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Students spent the majority of the school year building robots from snap-around pieces, refining their setup and construction. Following changes, these robots carry on with their task: collecting blocks and putting them in a basket.
The two teams — known as “Duck Tape and a Prayer” and “Whackadoodles” — communicate strategy to get points.
These teams, made up of students working together on the robot from conception to competition,  usually consist of a driver who operates the team’s robot, a designer who designs the robot, a builder who helps assemble the robot, and a programmer who plugs in scripts and commands for robot. Some of these roles can be shared between multiple team members.
The robots, uniquely different but built from the same competition kit, play “Full Volume” attempting to pick up and drop cubes in baskets.
When both teams competed at the state championship March 23, “Duck Tape and a Prayer” finished 35th and narrowly missed advancing to the final. “Whackadoodles” finished 107th out of 115 middle school teams.
Just four years into the program’s existence, Southside is garnering a reputation as a high-performing robotics team.
DeRome discovered his love of robotics when he joined Jay County’s robotics program in eighth grade and wanted to implement it into his career. He wanted to coach his own robotics team, yearning to teach and inspire students to become excited about engineering.
When DeRome graduated from Purdue University with a major in engineering/technology teacher education in 2020, he saw an opening at Southside for an industrial technology teacher.

Brian DeRome times his students robots March 19 at Muncie Southside Middle School. The game being played is called “Full Volume”. Andrew Berger, DN

He applied, wanting to set up a robotics program for the middle schoolers.
When he arrived at Southside, DeRome modeled his curriculum off the VEX robotics kits.
“I wanted [a] structure where kids can learn some of the competition-based ideas we do in our robotics competitions in the classroom itself,” DeRome said.
DeRome recruited students who were performing well in his classes. In the rebooted team’s first year, the group consisted of three.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team faced challenges and were forced to meet virtually. Southside qualified for the state competition during an in-person competition and advanced to the world championships. Held virtually, the Southside team finished seventh in its division in Southside’s first appearance.
“I was never able to [reach the division finals] in five attempts in high school,” DeRome said. “They were able to do it the very first time they ever did it.”
In the past decade, robotics’ popularity has grown in Indiana. Through the TechPoint Foundation for Youth, Indiana elementary and middle schools have VEX robotics kits. Andrew Fulton, program manager for TechPoint Foundation for Youth, said more than half of schools in Indiana have a robotics team.
“We're blessed to be able not only to give schools our robotics kit but also showcasing to the teachers and school districts why it's important that students are engaged in robotics,” Fulton said.
By the 2021-22 school year, the team grew to five teammates, with two making it to the world championships, held in Dallas. The highest placing team in its division placed 46th, and more than 3,000 teams from 36 nations competed at the event. DeRome said the trip to Dallas was an opportunity for the students to open their eyes and see the world around them.
As robotics has grown, Fulton said Indiana has sent an increasing number of teams to the world championships. In 2023, Indiana sent almost 200 teams to the world championship; the most from any one area. 

Michael Raters, principal of Southside Middle School, has been an avid supporter of the robotics team since he arrived at Southside in October 2021. 

“The opportunity for these kids is, in many ways, a once in a lifetime experience,” Raters said. “The idea is to make sure it's not once in a lifetime, because they’re able to connect and get more interested in their education.”
An important aspect of the VEX IQ competitions is strategy. DeRome said his experience in high school helped him understand the structure of the meets.
“I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a very successful robotics team from the start,” he said. “Being able to find the right resources and know the right things to be able to help teams along helped springboard our program past other schools around us.”
Robotics has also been used as a gateway into the world of STEM for students. Fulton said being on a robotics team allows students to learn both soft and hard skills.

 “You're teaching the students how to become members of a team and how to communicate effectively,” Fulton said. “The soft skills that come out in robotics are just as important as those STEM skills.”


Robotics club students set up blocks to test their robots March 19 at Muncie Southside Middle School. The aim of the game is for the robots to collect the blocks and place them in baskets. Andrew Berger, DN

One crucial piece of the puzzle is communication. DeRome said students come out of their shell and talk with their teammates to formulate competition strategies.
“Most of the kids [are] introverted,ut they have to communicate,” DeRome said. “This is a very hands-on experience, especially when you're trying to actively talk to other teams and strategize.”
Raters has attended previous robotics events and said he’s impressed by the independence of the students when building the robots and developing strategies. He described students as “owning the operation.”
Raters, a former coach himself, also praised how DeRome leads the students, saying DeRome sets the framework and often helps facilitate the students’ actions.
This season, the Southside teams placed a series of strong finishes in competitions. There are now 17 students on five teams representing Southside; teams representing Southside took victory in four meets and combined for seven awards, the most in Southside robotics history.
“We've found a way to be able to go toe-to-toe with some of these more successful or larger schools and teams,” DeRome said.
DeRome believes the students on Southside’s robotics team have potential and put Southside robotics “on the map.” Raters said the successes of all the robotics teams shows other students they’re capable of success.
“When we roll up our sleeves, and we really get after it, we're as capable as anybody else,” Raters said “Our [whole Southside] team goes out and proves that.”
Contact Grayson Joslin with comments at or on X @GraysonMJoslin.


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