Every season is a new challenge in FIRST Robotics competitions and they are challenges the West Valley High School team have excelled at year after year.
Students receive a basic parts kit in January and have only six weeks to build a robot that has to perform a specialized task, which changes every year. This year the robots had to grab and lift boxes to place on scales in order to earn points.
FIRST Robotics was created in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen and is now considered a leading STEM program for children around the world.
This is the third year in a row that the West Valley team has qualified to go to the World Championship in Houston. The team made the trip the previous two years, but budget issues mean the team will not be competing in the championship this year.
There are simply too many unknowns with the state’s new funding model, said West Valley School District spokeswoman Sue Shields.
“We’ve started to evaluate each expenditure,” she said. “Big events like this are usually fundraised, but there’s no time.”
Team advisor Eric Groshoff said local companies and the school district have already spent $25,000 on supplies and competitions this year. The team has 25 students and it would cost about $1,000 per student to send them to the competition, and Groshoff said he couldn’t simply pick some students to go and not others.
“All the kids put in over 3,000 hours during the season,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to the companies who have already supported us.”
Groshoff said he plans to build the money needed to attend Worlds into next year’s budget and said he’s confident his team will be back.
“That’s what I love about our kids, they’re consistent,” he said.
This year the Medical Lake High School team also qualified. This is the second year the Medical Lake team, which was created in 2013, has qualified for Worlds. At the recent District Championship in Portland, they were ranked 10th among 64 teams from Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
“It’s hard to qualify,” Groshoff said.
The West Valley team won an event in Mount Vernon, Washington, in March, which allowed them to advance to the district finals in Portland. The World Championships in Texas are scheduled to begin April 19.
Junior Sydney Stone was in charge of giving the robot commands to grab and lift while another student drove the robot. She also helped design the robot, making multiple sketches as the team worked out how they wanted to build their robot.
“I like to do a lot of the building and design and working with other team members,” Stone said.
She’s been involved in robotics competitions since she was in elementary school and knows she wants to be a mechanical engineer. Her goal is to work on product designs.
“I’ve found I really like designing stuff, but I also like building it,” she said. “I don’t want to choose. I want to do both.”
Senior Jessen Day, who is also on the football team, just got involved in robotics this year. He’s in manufacturing and construction classes and the team needed someone to manufacture their metal components.
“I spend three hours a day in the shop,” he said. “They asked us to help out and be part of the crew and the team.”
There’s no specialized metal machining equipment in the school’s shop, however. Day would use a CNC router designed for wood, but he had to slow the RPMs down, lubricate it with oil constantly and use a metal bit.
Being on the team prepares students for college by teaching performance under stress and the value of hard work, Groshoff said. Team members have put in 5,741 hours since last summer, and that’s on top of school, homework, clubs, sports and part-time jobs.
An estimated 90 percent of the students on the robotics team have gone into STEM or business careers, Groshoff said. Many of them use their experience on the team to fine tune their post-high school plans.
“These kids go to college focused,” he said.
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