ASC Service Project 2020: Nicholas Pastrana

Florida Middle School Vex IQ Robotics Competition Judge


Hi, my name is Nicholas Pastrana, and I am currently a sophomore attending Florida International University. I’m an Accounting major, but also an honors college student, which is how I found my way into this class.


I volunteered with the Robotics Education Competition (REC) organization to help host the VEX IQ South Florida Regional Championship. It’s a robotics competition that many students prepare for all year, in many cases the same team of students have been competing in this competition several years in a row.


Since I was a child, I had always loved to play with LEGOs. After I built a new set, I would love breaking it down to add it to my continuously growing conglomerate set. I also attended Coral Reef Elementary School, at which my mother was a Math and Science teacher. At the end of my 4th grade year we had heard of a competition called FIRST Lego League. In my 5th grade year, my mother decided to form a team, of which I was on and we went to compete. We didn’t do very well but I still vividly remember the competitions in which we participated. I had loved competing in FIRST Lego League, I felt like I was in a movie building and programming robots to save the day, at least that’s how its seen through the eyes of a child. For a while, FIRST Lego League had played a huge role in me wanting to become a software engineer. Just as it inspired me, these competitions inspire thousands of students each year. In FIRST Lego League students would be given an obstacle course where they would race with their robots to complete objectives in order to garner points. Each team would be given a basic kit of parts to build their robot. Creative teams, such as my own, got crafty and added on extra parts in attempt to surpass the competition. The students would also be tasked with programming the robot in a beginner’s level block-based programming software. Finally, the students would be given a real-world problem of which they would need to come up with an invention to solve it. All these factors came together to create an amazing educational experience for young STEM studies interested students. Though I never competed in VEX IQ, I know that VEX IQ is very similar to FIRST Lego League; build a robot, program a robot, compete with the robot, and analyzing real world problems. Reminiscent on my experiences with FIRST Lego League, I was ecstatic to volunteer as a judge for the VEX IQ competition at Westminster Christian School, where my mother currently works.

Students running their robots in competition. All pictures are originals of my own CC by 4.0


Westminster Christian School is collaborating with Florida International University in developing a training program for robotics teachers. Through this connection, Westminster Christian School reached out to Florida International University to find volunteers for the event.


To start the morning, the judges met in the conference room of the STEM building where we discussed the rules and scoring guides we would use throughout the day. Then we separated into elementary school and middle school and began reviewing the teams’ journals. The journals are notes of the team’s progress throughout the year and are scored on a scale of zero to forty-five. After scoring the journals we noted the teams with the top scoring journals and went to go interview them. We interviewed teams in groups of two or three judges at a time. Each group of judges ranked their favorite teams, but we didn’t use a score for this portion. By this point it was lunch time, so we took a break to eat. We had narrowed down forty-seven teams to about fifteen, eleven of which would receive awards and the top three of those would move onto the World competition. After lunch we had received updated results on the scoring of the team’s robot runs and were able to determine which award would be given except the Excellence Award (overall champion).

The other volunteers and I in the discussion room. All pictures are originals of my own CC by 4.0

The school was short on volunteers so they picked up whoever they could. I think this is important to mention because the debate for who won the Excellence Award was being debated between myself, who’s had experience competing in these types of events, and a preschool Bible teacher, who’s never participated in robotics in any way whatsoever. She had said that we should not give the Excellence award to the highest ranked team because no all-girls team won an award. The team who rightfully won the Excellence award was a group of three boys. I told the group this and the lady who wanted the all-girls team to win called me sexist. I would’ve loved to have gone off on her, but we were doing this for children and my mother worked at the school, so I held my tongue. I explained “Look, the boys were dominant in the journal, robot runs, and interviews, I can show you here with how we scored them, quantitative data proving that the boys won. The boys ranked first overall, and the girls ranked fourth. Should you pick the girls to win over the boys YOU would be showing them favoritism based off gender.” At this point, the kindergarten English teacher said, “well I think it would be a cute way to end the day if the girls won.” Baffled, hurt, and concerned for the integrity of the tournament I asked them all to please give me a minute. I left to get my mother’s boss; the man responsible for hosting the competition.

When I stepped out of the door, I realized how risky this move was. I was going to tell my mother’s boss that I was arguing with several of their co-workers, that I was right, and that I’d like for him to come settle the argument. But, I remembered how much these competitions meant to me as kid. How much fun it was to win just any award. I never went to the world competition; I never even went to the state competition. I couldn’t imagine the satisfaction I would’ve felt winning the top award in-state and going to the world competition. I couldn’t let an undeserving team win just because they were girls.

I found the man and explained to him how the other judges had wanted the girls to win, because they were girls and to my surprise, he cut me off and said, “absolutely not, let’s go”. I followed him back to the classroom we had been holding our debates and he asked for the scores and rankings we had given teams. He then picked up a sticky note and held it in the air “This is the time highest ranked overall?” Several people said yes or nodded their heads. “OK.” He slapped the sticky note onto the printout copies of the awards we had taped to the wall to guide the debate. Then, took a picture of all the awards and all the team’s sticky notes on the wall. He turned to leave and said, “I’ll be announcing the awards in fifteen minutes.”The rest of the afternoon I spent picking up tables and folding chairs and bringing them back to storage. We then picked up any leftover trash of food and threw it out, took out the trash, said good-bye, and went home.



This experience was amazing. I was glad I had the opportunity to give back to something that had such a positive impact on me as a child. I was also glad that I held my tongue back from the lady who called me sexist because it wouldn’t have fared well for my argument nor my mother.  

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