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Robotics competition draws crowds, springboards youth into engineering fields

UPDATED: Sat., March 23, 2019

Pullman High School students from left Euan McCubbin, Francis O’Toole and Beck Meisel dance in between battles during the First Robotics Competition at West Valley High School on Saturday, March 23, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Pullman High School students from left Euan McCubbin, Francis O’Toole and Beck Meisel dance in between battles during the First Robotics Competition at West Valley High School on Saturday, March 23, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Members of Team Sciborg wheeled their robot out of the pop-up mechanical workshop in a room behind the West Valley High School gym. After three months of designing, building and perfecting the robot for a few competitive tasks, the team from Pullman was ready to compete.

The noise from the gymnasium, where more than 1,000 screaming spectators became even louder as the competitors entered the space-themed central arena.

Team Sciborg was one of 29 teams at the annual robotics competition hosted by FIRST Washington on Saturday. FIRST Washington brings together high school students from across the Pacific Northwest to compete against and collaborate with other builders, where they earn points in various games.

AJ LaRiviere, 15, from Pullman High School, is the “lead electrical” – one position in the 20-person Sciborg team. She stood in the workshop, surrounded by Craftsman toolboxes and shelves with wiring and spare parts for the robot.

“We’re constantly updating the robot throughout the competition,” she said.

Wearing clear safety glasses, LaRiviere said that working on the team is preparing her for a career in engineering, but she’s mostly learned the value of teamwork during her three years in the competition.

The competition involves picking up beach ball-sized balls, placing them into baskets, picking up and moving disks, and climbing shallow platforms. The rules and objectives of the game change every year. Competitors find out that year’s set-up the first week in January, leaving them about three months to prepare for the competition.

Team Sciborg’s robot weighed about 128 pounds and stood almost six feet tall with its arm fully extended upward. The arm grabs and releases the balls with small wheels. Its base is squared, lined with bumpers, and moves around on wheels. Overall, it cost about $3,000, LaRiviere said.

This year, Boeing sponsored the event, and the theme was “Destination Deep Space.” The arena included rocket ships as one of the nets that competitors attempted to direct their robots to place inflatable balls into.

The spectacle of the competition matches that of a high school basketball game. The gym was packed Saturday with yelling fans holding signs and rooting on the robots. A jumbotron showed game-show quality camera work and an announcer gave play-by-play commentary.

Erin McCallum, president of FIRST Washington, said the program is gaining momentum and she hopes to have it in every school in Washington. Currently, there are 1,200 teams in Washington, with members ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

McCallum said the FIRST Washington robotics competition fosters creativity and a sense of belonging. She said some kids in the program aren’t considered to be the best students, but this is something real they can do from the math and physics they learn.

“Most people think this is a program for the gifted or the real geeks,” she said. “But there are students here from all walks of life.”

Janice O’Toole was one of the hundreds of parents in the crowd. She wore an orange Team Sciborg polo and matching visor dotted with pins from various robotics competitions. Her son Francis is on the team and also volunteered at the competition.

She went to her first robotics competition four years ago in Ellensburg and was stunned by the amount of energy.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I thought it was going to be boring. I left with my voice gone from screaming so loud.”

O’Toole said she’s also been pleased with the community that Francis has found.

“If you want to come and feel accepted for something, this is the place to be,” she said.

The games are set in a hockey-size arena, and three teams form an alliance to compete against three other teams simultaneously. The idea is to develop teamwork and a stronger sense of cooperation.

The three winning teams Saturday were Bear Metal from Tahoma High School in Maple Valley, Team CHUCK from West Valley High School in Spokane Valley and The Blackhawks from Cheney High School.

Winners receive a blue banner, recognition and will likely advance to the pacific northwest district championship held April 4-6 at Greater Tacoma Convention Center.

Team Sciborg didn’t walk away empty-handed at the end of the day. The team won the Excellence in Engineering Award, which recognizes the team with stand-out engineering abilities.

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