VEX Robotics World Championship: Interview with Bob Mimlitch

VEX Robotics
The annual VEX Robotics World Championship is scheduled to occur between May 3rd and 12th!

The annual VEX Robotics World Championship is scheduled to occur between May 3rd and 12th! This will mark the first in-person event in two years and the tournament will be held in Dallas, Texas. It is estimated that event will host more than 20,000 students from 49 states and 35 countries!

The VEX Robotics World Championship is organized by The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation and VEX Robotics. It features student-led teams composed of students from elementary school to college. Each team battles their custom-built robots while showcasing their game strategy, design and teamwork skills. While both fun and entertaining, the event also highlights the importance of robotics education and showcases how competitions can help facilitate STEM learning.

Bob Mimlitch is a mechanical engineer and the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Innovation First International. Radical thinking and creativity early in the design process is central to Bob’s work and that, combined with the belief in the methodical and iterative nature of the design process, has produced elegant solutions that VEX Robotics is known for.

Bob recently discussed robotics and his career via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for technology and how did that lead you into your current job?

Bob Mimlitch (BM): I grew up with an engineer grandfather, a math teacher mother, and a father in military reconnaissance. So, technology and math were all around me.  I knew I wanted to be an engineer before high school. Engineering college teaches you technical skills, and real-world experience is just as critical, but mentoring students in robotics was the real key to our success.  That led to Tony Norman and I starting VEX Robotics, which allows thousands of mentors to help millions of students.

MM: How did you get involved with the VEX Robotics competition and how long has it been running?

BM: We started the VEX Robotics competition to provide equity and access to enhanced STEM opportunities for students.  We witnessed the transformational effects of robotics and competition firsthand as mentors and wanted every student to have a chance to experience hands-on STEM. Since the first VEX competition in 2007 we have strived to create affordable and highly competitive robotics sports, knowing that it would drive students to work harder and smarter.  Now, as the Guinness record holder for the Largest Robotics Competition in the World, we think we are just getting started.

VEX RoboticsMM: What are some of the coolest robotic designs you’ve seen people come up with?

BM: Every year we create a game, and students build new robots to compete in that game. Year after year, I am impressed with the creative and innovative engineering solutions that VEX students come up with.  I think in every robot these students build, I see those cool features that obviously came from teamwork, creativity, and critical thinking.  The robots the students are building now, using advanced manufacturing techniques and artificial intelligence, have a wow factor that is incredible.

MM: What have been the highlights of working with this company and overseeing the competition?

BM: The highlights, as I think you can guess by now, are in creating a brighter future for the students.  They learn so much more than robotics.  Science, technology, engineering, and math are great, but the soft skills can be even more beneficial.  Learning teamwork at their age, working in a collaborative and positive environment, and learning what you really love to do are skills that will last them a lifetime.

MM:  What do winners receive?

BM: In VEX Robotics there are ultimately two ways to win.  One is being on the winning team at the VEX World Championship.  Along with a cool trophy and a banner from your school, that level of notoriety is a big prize.  The top prize however, is the Excellence Award, given to the team that exemplifies overall excellence in their robotics program.  This award takes into account performance at all levels of competition, judges interview responses, sportsmanship, and the quality of the team’s robotics program as a whole.

MM: What has been some of the most memorable feedback you’ve gotten?

BM: The best engineers are those that keep on learning and striving to do better. The more you mentor and teach, the better an engineer and a human being you become.  My feedback is seeing the heights that the students achieve after robotics.  Hearing stories years later about how VEX Robotics changed their lives is all the feedback that I need.  Then I simply ask them to get back to work and keep changing the world for the better!

MM: What other initiatives are you coming up with to promote the importance of robotics and STEM?

BM: The new direction in VEX Robotics is to reach more students and grow in new areas of STEM.  We have always had a component of Computer Science and coding in our programs, but we are accelerating that into classrooms from kindergarten through college.  Knowledge of the power of coding will help every student’s future, even if they choose a different career path.  Our other direction is in Workforce Development, teaching job skills and knowledge that give students the ability to succeed in the work environments of the future.

MM: How do you envision the brand expanding and evolving over the next ten years?

BM: We believe VEX Robotics has a bright and expanding future, and as I have said, we are only getting started.  Our goal is to provide the world’s best STEM and robotics experiences to every student around the globe.  In that way, our future and the global future of humanity and the planet are all improved.  I look forward to the next ten years with pure excitement and the thrill of a challenge.

MM: How does it feel to have the competition be local this year?

VEX RoboticsBM: Texas is our home and we could not be more excited to have the competition in Dallas.  In addition to the short-term benefits of helping our local economy, we are excited about the opportunities.  Working even closer with local school districts and state education officials will benefit everyone.  I expect this new location will allow even more people to see and learn about the excitement of competitive educational robotics.

MM: How did you pivot previous years with COVID?

BM: We realized that the world situation offered us an opportunity to accelerate our efforts and expand our goals further than ever before.  By April of 2020 we launched a new online robotics coding environment that allowed STEM students around the world to not miss out while away from school.  VEXcode VR grew at an astounding rate due to the needs of educators, the quality of the learning experience, and the fact that we kept it free to everyone.   We poured more time and energy into it and it grew within 2 years into 3 million users running over 165 million programs from 156 countries. Additionally, we launched a means to allow robotics competitions to continue without the need for travel, linking homes and schools globally to live online competition with other teams from around the globe, winning us another Guinness World Record.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

BM: We know the success of VEX, and the success of the students, is due to the significant effort and time that the educators and mentors give their students.  Educators and mentors are driving our students toward a better future.  I respect their efforts and will continue to help them in every way possible.