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Robotics competition returns in-person at West Valley High School as Washington’s engineering-minded students square off

April 3, 2022 Updated Sun., April 3, 2022 at 8:50 p.m.

Team driver Andrew Link, left, and operator Berlyn Hegg, right, take part in the FIRST Washington Robotics competition and control their robot in the midst of competition Saturday at West Valley High School. Behind the two high school students, Coach Robert Lopez, black hat, watches Link and Hegg, who are members of the Vikotics team from Palouse High School.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Team driver Andrew Link, left, and operator Berlyn Hegg, right, take part in the FIRST Washington Robotics competition and control their robot in the midst of competition Saturday at West Valley High School. Behind the two high school students, Coach Robert Lopez, black hat, watches Link and Hegg, who are members of the Vikotics team from Palouse High School. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Lillian Piel For The Spokesman-Review

It seemed like pure bedlam at the West Valley FIRST Robotics Competition on Saturday: the hustle and bustle of high school students competing with the robots they spent the past few months carefully building and the roar of loud cheering by spectators.

The event featured 19 teams, pitted against each other in rounds of a three-versus-three format. Teams were randomly placed into “alliances” and competed to score the most points. This year’s goal was for the robots to shoot balls into one of two funnels, and have the robots climb a series of bars that increased in height.

Adrienne Collins, the director of programs with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) Washington, said the competition isn’t just about building robots – it’s about learning about technology, leadership and skills that are applicable to the students’ future careers. According to Collins, teams are given their challenge the first week of January, and they partner with mentors to help them build their robot before the competition.

This year’s West Valley competition marked the first time the event was held in person since 2020.

Collins said that although previous competitions were held remotely, it was often tiring, so it’s great to be back to in-person competitions.

“You know, as one of my co-workers said, our cup never got filled because what fills our cup is coming to these events and seeing all of the different solutions to the same problem, because they’re really given the same challenge and the robots are very different,” he said, “and seeing the kids’ energy and excitement, and I mean, it’s just exhausting and thrilling at the same time.”

FIRST Robotics is highly student-driven, and it takes a lot of preparation to get ready for the competition, said Debbie Reeder, one of the site hosts for the West Valley competition. The students involved have a drive to win, and when they work as a team and their robot works, it is exciting, she said.

During the competition, teams each have a space called the “pit,” where they can work on their robots. Sometimes, things don’t go as planned and teams have to make last-minute adjustments.

“I think the most exciting is when they get it to work or really, when something doesn’t work and they’re able to fix it on the spot like that, I think it’s exciting for them,” Reeder said.

Darius Storm, a mentor for the team NeoBots, said he was proud of how the team competed and was looking forward to the final rounds. After some initial electrical issues and programming, he said the team was able to get most of it ironed out. Storm enjoys teaching the teams about engineering.

“It’s really cool to see them put the robot together and go out and compete and have fun, and just being able to enable them to do that,” Storm said.

After the qualifying rounds took place, the top six teams picked their alliances for the final round.

Stealth Robotics, from Cedarcrest High School in Duvall, was the top seed going into the final round, and immediately picked the second-ranked team to join them, Cedar Park Robotics, or CPR, from Cedar Park Christian Schools.

West Valley High School’s own team, CHUCK, accomplished its goal of being the team to score the most goals, said William Logan, the team’s driver. Logan said he designed the intake system for the team’s robot, which includes a sensor system that allows it to pick up balls off of the floor.

Logan, who is a senior this year, said that being back in person at competitions after COVID-19 has been nice because he has enjoyed meeting people who are new to the program.

“It’s a lot of new people this year, so it’s fun building new relationships with the younger kids at the school and people I don’t really talk to,” he said.

Stealth Robotics, CPR and Classified, from Umatilla High School, were the district event winners. District event finalists were CHUCK; A-05 Annex, from Hood River Valley High School; and Mustang Mechanica, from Northpoint High School.

Next weekend, the district championship will take place in Cheney, and 50 teams will be competing, Collins said. She expects around 3,000 people to be in attendance.

Shuree Hoffman, who attended the event because her husband and son are both mentors, said it’s fun to see the teams coming together. Hoffman said that robotics differs from sports because while very few kids who play sports will go on to play professionally, with robotics, many of the kids involved will find their future careers through their involvement.

“Robotics programs (themselves) are just so powerful for kids … and help them find their niche and what they might be good at, and so don’t discount your robotics programs,” Hoffman said.

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