L.A. Youth Robotics Competition Leaves Student Teams Energized

In a blur of motion, wheeled robots race across the ’playing field’
In a blur of motion, wheeled robots race across the ’playing field’ at the FIRST Robotics Competition Los Angeles Regional at the Da Vinci Schools campus in El Segundo. The annual student robotics event is supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with volunteers and team mentors.
Supported by volunteers from JPL and the aerospace industry, the annual regional FIRST Robotics event makes an impact on young competitors and adult mentors alike.

After two days of fast-paced competition complete with team uniforms, cheerleaders, pounding music, and blaring horns, multiple teams of high schoolers came out victorious at the 23rd annual FIRST Robotics Competition Los Angeles Regional over the weekend. Next, they-ll be headed to an international championship tournament where their 125-pound inventions will compete for robotics glory.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sponsored several of the 44 competing teams and supported the event, held at the Da Vinci Schools campus in El Segundo, by coordinating about 100 volunteers. -It’s always gratifying to see these kids compete with such determination and passion, but it’s also wonderful to witness the joy they bring to the adults who come together for this event,- said Kim Lievense, who manages JPL-s Public Services Office and coordinated volunteers at the competition.

Energy and Community

The event is one of many taking place across the country under the umbrella of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The nonprofit organization pairs students with STEM professionals for hands-on engineering experience and practice with problem-solving, team building, fundraising, and promotion, among other skills. Teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition receive technical specifications and game rules in January and have just weeks to design, build, and test their wheeled robots.

This year’s game, dubbed -Charged Up,- is themed around the future of sustainable energy. Two alliances of three teams compete on a -playing field- that’s about 26 by 54 feet. In each 2 ┬oe-minute round, the teams- robots must retrieve rubber cones and inflatable cubes that represent electrical power from -substations- and place them into a -grid.- Robots also race to roll up onto a wobbling -charge station- for extra points.

Students put in long hours preparing their robots. It all paid off in the case of Brianna Adewinmbi, a junior at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science in Carson. Her Team 687 (aka the -Nerd Herd-) came out on top, and she was one of two students selected as a finalist for the nationwide FIRST Dean’s List Award (inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST) recognizing student leadership and dedication. Wearing a colorful propeller hat and fielding high-fives from fellow students, she said the team had been working after school till 10 p.m. for many days.

-It’s insane. I just keep thinking, It was all worth it, all the time that we spent,- Adewinmbi said.

Adewinmbi’s team will be joined at the FIRST Championship in Houston next month by the two other California teams from the winning alliance: Team 5199 (-Robot Dolphins From Outer Space-) from Dana Point and and Team 702 (-Bagel Bytes-) from Culver City. Team 6833 (-Phoenix Robotics-) from Arizona, which had subbed in for the Culver City team to play in the winning alliance, is on the priority waitlist to attend. Two award-winners, Team 5089 (-Robo-Nerds-) from Benjamin Franklin Senior High School in Los Angeles and Team 4201 (-Vitruvian Bots-) from Da Vinci Schools, will also head to Houston.

For about two decades, NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project has supported youth robotics teams through agency centers across the country and at JPL, aiming to inspire students to pursue careers in aerospace while helping them build the skills they-ll need to succeed.

-We all do it for the same reason: It’s really to help get kids inspired in science, engineering, and technology,- said JPL-s Dave Brinza, assistant mission assurance manager for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. Brinza started mentoring Team 980 (-ThunderBots-), now at Burbank High School, in 2003. -We often say the real trophies aren-t the blue banners and the things you put on a shelf, it’s the kids who go on and have successful careers.-

For Julie Townsend, a robotics systems engineer who is JPL-s point of contact for the NASA Robotics Alliance Project, it’s been a way to draw young women into a field in which they are underrepresented. For nearly 20 years, she has coached Southern California Girl Scout teams in FIRST Tech Challenge , which is like a smaller-scale version of FIRST Robotics Competition. At the Los Angeles Regional event, she volunteered as a judge.

-I have had parents coming up to me in tears, thanking me for what I had done for their daughters, who had changed the course of their lives,- Townsend said. -It’s so unusual to have such a safe environment to learn these technical skills and develop your own power with no judgment and no social strings attached.