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Honors Leadership Scholar leads VEXU Robotics Team to World Championship

Four years ago, Grant Kobes, a member of the inaugural class of UT’s Honors Leadership Program, created a strategic leadership plan to found UT’s VEX University competitive robotics team, YNOT, as part of an assignment for his first foundations of leadership course.  Grant personally secured a team mentor and started a new student organization after developing a budget and drafting a constitution.  He hosted interest meetings, performed individual member skills evaluations, and held officer elections.  With no sponsor or work space, Grant and his teammates created their first robot on the floor of his dorm room in White Hall!  Since then, his team’s footprint and successes have been unprecedented.

Team YNOT’s 2021 World Championship robot fleet

Team YNOT has qualified for and competed at the world championship level for the past four years.  This summer, Grant and team YNOT achieved the impossible.   Not only were they crowned World Champions at the 2021 VEXU Robotics World Championship in Greenville, Texas, but they also earned the Excellence Award, the highest award presented in the VEX Robotics competition. This award is presented to the team that exemplifies overall excellence in building a high-quality robotics program including design innovation, build quality, autonomous programming, personal interview, and documentation through an engineering notebook.

2021 Competition robot

Grant evolved his early vision for team YNOT into a four-year capstone leadership project by applying the theoretical leadership concepts he learned in his Honors Leadership Program coursework.  First, he wanted to create an opportunity for UT engineering students to gain hands-on experience with the principles they were studying in class.  “Competitive robotics hones essential skills that all young engineers must possess,” says Kobes, “like the ability to approach a problem using the engineering design process:  to fabricate a prototype, test, and relentlessly revise until the most efficient iteration is achieved.”

Next, he sought to give back to the local community by establishing mentorship relationships between his university level team and middle and high school robotics teams around the state.  “These young teams thrive when given one-on-one attention from an experienced VEX competitor,” says Kobes.  The impact of this collaboration was recognized by judges at the 2018 VEX World Championship, resulting in team YNOT receiving the prestigious Community Award.  This award is presented to the university level team that demonstrated the most meaningful leadership and influence toward promoting STEM education in their local community.

Team YNOT founder Grant Kobes (seated), watches as young students begin a chassis assembly.

Grant continued to develop his own personal leadership style through ELPS coached leadership skills and expanded his vision to include using competitive robotics to recruit the most talented high school students from around the state to the Tickle College of Engineering.  He accomplished this goal by planning and hosting an official VEX qualifying event on UT’s campus in early 2020.  In preparation for the event, Kobes spent the semester inventorying his leadership strengths and weaknesses while outlining the multiple steps necessary to make the tournament a reality.   “Putting this event together required me to utilize many of the leadership skills that I struggle with.  However, it also provided a practical opportunity for me to inspire and empower other YNOT team members who naturally possess these skills to take on leadership roles of their own,” says Kobes.

UT’s first official Vex tournament, Tower Takeover, brought over 150 students, coaches, family, and friends to Rocky Top.  Thirty-two teams from around the state competed for seven qualifying spots at the 2020 Tennessee VEX State Championship.  Upon their arrival on campus, students and their coaches were treated to T-shirts and swag bags from the Tickle College of Engineering and the ISE department.  “We wanted to get information into the hands of perspective students and their parents,” says ISE department head, Dr. John Kobza, who helped team YNOT orchestrate the event. “These kids are already budding industrial engineers integrating technology, people, and information to maximize their performance in the VEX challenge. UT is a great option for them as there are many branches of study available in the Tickle College of Engineering. I hope to see them as UT Volunteers in a few years.”

Another aspect of Grant’s leadership plan, diversity, was also highlighted at the event. In 2017, VEX introduced an initiative called ‘Girl Powered’ in an effort to involve more females in competitive robotics.  The program offered workshops and events specifically for female students.  Since then, VEX has seen an explosion in the number of females on competition teams, as well as all-girl teams.  “For example, the Talbot, Tennessee team, Higher Calling, comprised of only two female high school students, won the Excellence Award at our event,” says Kobes.  “These girls can hold their own against any team in our state.”

Robots stack cubes at UT’s VEX Tower Takeover event

Two all-girls teams go head-to-head at the event as Team YNOT member, Eli Charles (right), serves as referee.

Teams took advantage of their trip to Rocky Top by coming to UT on Friday afternoon and taking campus tours.  “Many students from technical schools, as well as rural programs around the state, were on campus for the first time in their lives,” says Kobes. “With the implementation of the Tennessee Promise scholarship, robotics students who never dreamed they could afford to attend UT to study engineering are now perfect candidates and team YNOT wants to be the first to welcome them to campus.  We were also honored to have twenty elementary students from Green Magnet Academy elementary school, which we mentor, serve as our field resetters during the competition,” says Kobes, “proving that students are never too young to embody the Volunteer spirit.”

Team YNOT continues to host events highlighting the college of engineering including an online event during COVID-19 in which Grant personally proctored thirty-minute Zoom sessions with teams from around the country.  Using skills he perfected working as a technical specialist at the department of ISE’s iLAB, he even created custom awards for the winners.

Grant hosts an online competition session through Zoom

Grant funds his team almost entirely by organizing yearly fundraising campaigns through VOLstarter, UT Knoxville’s crowdfunding platform. Over the past four years, the team has raised over $20,000 which they use for supplies and outreach.  During last year’s BIG ORANGE GIVE, Team YNOT won the Student Organization Challenge, bringing in over $3600.  With the help of team mentor, Dr. John Kobza, Grant was also successful in obtaining a dedicated 1200 sq ft lab space on campus, an exceptional privilege for an undergraduate.

Grant’s leadership efforts were rewarded by the Tickle College of Engineering when he was named the 2020 Outstanding ISE Student of the Year, recognizing both academic excellence and service contributions to the engineering campus community.

At this year’s VEX University Robotics World Championship, Team YNOT accomplished an unprecedented feat by winning both the competitive portion of the event and the highest judged award, the Excellence Award. “I am most proud of the Excellence Award,” says Kobes, “because it represents the efforts of the entire team.  YNOT optimizes our performance using designers from Tickle College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering department, programmers from the computer science department, an automation expert from ISE, and an archival specialist from anthropology who compiles our engineering notebook.  One of our best builders is actually a wildlife and fisheries major! Our success demonstrates what UT students can achieve when they work in collaboration.”

Team members (from left): Andy Zeng, a junior in Computer Engineering; Clare Remy, a recent graduate from the department of Anthropology; Grant Kobes, a senior in the ISE department; Tony Spezia, a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering; Mackenzie Belt, a sophomore in Wildlife and Fisheries; Brandan Roachell, a junior in Computer Science; Jay Ashworth, a junior in Computer Engineering; and Christian Ramsey, a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering.

While Grant’s leadership has brought UT and its students international recognition for servant leader hearts and their capacity to make a difference in their community, team YNOT continues to volunteer hundreds of hours as judges and referees at numerous VEX qualifying events around the state.  Upon his graduation in December, Grant will receive a gold medallion, in recognition of his personal contribution of over 225 hours of community service, from UT’s Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service.  “One of the greatest rewards I have received through my HLP experience is the honor of serving alongside like-minded and gifted students,” says Kobes.

With a World Championship title under his belt, Kobes is now focusing on the leadership legacy he leaves at UT through team YNOT by ensuring that the team continues after he graduates.  Kobes has already begun to mentor and train team members in specific areas which will allow them to assume additional leadership positions in the organization.  “The ultimate indicator of my success as a leader is that the organization I leave behind continues to draw the brightest young minds to the University of Tennessee.”