Every Thursday night CO:bots students meet in the event space of theCO to practice building and operating their VEX Robots. At a glance, one might never know that the kids quietly tinkering and constructing in the back of the building are actually engineering some of the finest robots in the area and offer some fierce competition for other VEX students.
Ben McCarver is one of the students that comprises the CO:bots group, and he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with in the world of VEX Robotics. Ben has been a part of the CO:bots Meetup for the past two and a half years, and he’s already competed twice in the VEX Robotics World Competition before he was even 16.
Ben’s mom, KaBao, is one of the many active parents in CO:bots, and she says “Ben is homeschooled, which means he has flexibility with his time, and there have been weeks where he puts 40-60 hours in here at theCO just working on his robot. I mean, that’s like a full time job!”
That certainly is a lot of time to spend on one thing, but that hard work and effort has paid off, as Ben and Charlie Wade, another CO:bots member, have earned an early invitation to compete against the top 60 teams in the nation in Chantilly, Virginia at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Not only that, but Ben has also been invited to compete in San Francisco, California by Google in the middle of February.
Although these accomplishments are impressive and important, KaBao says that she is thankful for more than just the awards. Originally, Ben was apart of a local robotics club whose small space and infrequent meetings made it difficult for him to develop his skills.
“We had this kid that was just dying to learn and grow and explore, and yet nothing to do that with,” KaBao says. “As a homeschooling mom, I’m always looking for opportunities for him to cultivate his interests, and we found that Jackson offered very few programs and support. So when we found the VEX Robotics league and CO:bots at theCO, it was like my son had found his community.”
At first, CO:bots just consisted of Ben and his younger brother Nicholas, but now the program has grown to seven competitive members since Ben continues to bring people in. He had found people that liked the same things he liked and that were willing to challenge and push themselves as well, and he gave the opportunity to other kids as well. But just like any community, it had to be built and nurtured.
“When you can put your children where their tribe is--that’s what I love to see, is his growth. This is a place where he can be himself. Here, he can be this tech geek or this STEM nerd. It’s a place where he fits and where people understand him,” KaBao gestured around her and said “Just this room is safe for him because he doesn’t have to worry about explaining himself or his hobbies. theCO has offered Ben a safe place to be physically and mentally, and so finding this for him has been life changing.”
In just two years Ben has competed at many notable competitions, has been invited to big-name matches, and has managed to build a community for himself and kids like him. The CO:bots students really do operate like more than a team, but a family, as they are constantly building their robots and each other up
KaBao says, “This opportunity has changed the trajectory of his life. VEX is such a huge part of his life, and without this there would be such a hole that we wouldn’t even know was there. So to have it so full that it overflows is wonderful.”
Since Ben is only 16, he has plenty of time to continue to grow his skills and develop his robots. He says there are colleges that have competitive VEX Robotics clubs, but that he doesn’t foresee himself participating at the collegiate level.
“I’ve thought about getting into medical engineering and creating robotic prosthetics for people instead. It still has to do with robotics, but a lot more to do with biology.”
Ben knows that he wants to have some kind of involvement with robotics in the future, but for now, he is content to continue as he is now: working hard on his robots, and even following his favorite “celebrity” competitors and their robots on social media and robotics forums.
“It’s hard to believe I’m winning the tournaments and making robots good enough to go to these competitions. It’s pretty crazy to think that my robot is up there at the same level as some of the top robots in the world,” Ben says. “At the national competition last year, I talked to these robots that had ranked first in “Skills,” and they were just Juniors and Seniors like me, casually talking about how they won!”
KaBao smiled and proceeded to explain that none of this would be possible without the support the CO:bots families have received.
“This is not something that has been accomplished by just us as parents. It has been accomplished by everyone; business people in Jackson, friends and family, and theCO.
Ben has definitely had success, but the big success is having a safe and welcoming place for these kids.”