Laura Smith and members of her robotics team practice with the robots

Laura Smith, engineering teacher with Shelby County Public Schools, earned Kentucky’s VEX Coach of the Year honor this year. Submitted photo

Laura Smith, the Shelby County Public Schools engineering teacher, has been named Kentucky’s VEX Coach of the Year. She has been the team’s coach since 2016.

“All the coaches vote every year on the coach of the year, and I had no idea they would choose me,” said Smith. “I was so excited.”

VEX is a robotics competition created by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, an organization whose mission is to increase student involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with hands-on robotics engineering programs.

Each year, the VEX Robotics Competition presents a different challenge the students are required to solve. This year, the game was called Over Under.

The competition was played on a square field and the object of the game was to collect the most points by getting the team’s robots either over or under a bar which is less than 18 inches off the ground to get to the other side of the field.  

“It’s a huge learning experience and the interviews for the kids give them so much real-world experience to sit in front of a panel of judges, which a lot of times they may be true engineers that come in and judge the students work,” said Smith.

At the beginning of each school year, she said the first thing the students work on is an engineering notebook, which creates a space to write down their understanding of how they are going to score points during the game and how they plan to compete. This notebook is also one of the items evaluated by the judges during competition and is included in the overall scoring.

During the event, students compete against both middle and high school teams combined, participating in around six or seven matches in a day.

“It’s always a mixture because you could be competing against a middle school team who can barely move their robots, while you’re a high school team (with more experience) competing against them,” said Smith.

Smith started this journey after the previous high school coach left and the principal at Martha Layne Collins High School said she could move up to the high school to coach and teach. With her children coming up through the school district, she said she decided to take the position and continue the program.

“I wanted to keep the program going because I had a crew of kids who started when they were in 6th grade and they were going to be incoming freshmen the next year and they did not want to give it up,” she said.

Since taking the coaching position, Smith said she has seen firsthand her students grow within the industry and the program.

“My kids are one of the top traditional high schools as far as for the state when it comes to robotics. They have made a name for themselves,” said Smith.

Not only does she encourage her students to excel in their program, but she also looks to support other women around her to explore the world of robotics and take those steps to become a coach.

“There are not many of us females in the field or even when it comes to coaches,” said Smith. “That is one thing that I am trying to focus on, getting more women involved and showing them the support from this network of coaches. They are always there for you.”  

In addition to recruiting coaches, Smith encourages more public schools and their students to join in on the exploration of robotics.

“I love it and I love the kids, they’re great kids,” said Smith. “They’re a lot of fun and they keep things interesting in here, and I would love for this to grow within the state because this is such a wonderful program.”