SODA robotics team wins first in state

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The little engine that could might be a good metaphor for the BEST robotics team at School of Dreams Academy.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: The School of Dreams Academy robotics team, Space S.U.I.T., won overall first place in the statewide WARP XX BEST 2012 Design Contest in Las Cruces last Saturday. The team also won first place for their robot, and will compete regionally in Dallas on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9-10.

The team, named “Space S.U.I.T.,” for Science Utilizing Interstellar Technology, had a lot of challenges to overcome, yet managed to win overall first place in the WARP XX BEST 2012 Design contest, and first place for their robot last Saturday.

The Friday night before the competition, the team’s robot fell 10 feet, shattering like a piñata, students said.

They were already nervous about the competition, and were working on finishing up their project. They had to fly into high gear to rebuild the robot.

To top it off, while they were frantically rebuilding the robot, the power went out for three hours.

“So, we were working in the dark, trying to fix the robot,” said SODA senior Emma Clary-Gelinas, the team’s chief executive officer. “We moved everything outside because it was still light enough to work.”

When it was too dark to work outside, team members worked on what they could inside, and began rehearsing their presentation until the power was restored around 9 p.m.

The robot is designed to travel up a 10 foot pole. The WARP XX competition is centered around a robot that is capable of delivering supplies to a moon base using intergalactic space elevator technology.

The students built a robot that can climb a simulation of an elevator space tube to deliver various objects to a receiving receptacle at the top of the pole, and the robot has an arm with a grasping mechanism to manipulate objects.

The game strategy is to score four lightweight whiffle balls, two fuel bottles (1 liter soda bottles), two solar panels and flip a summit switch at the top of the pole, which is worth two points, said sophomore Denton Shaver, the chief technology operator.

Space Suit’s competitive spirit and determination was tested yet again, this time during the competition when the robot fell and needed repairs a second time.

The robot is able to climb using a wide spool of rope with more than 50-pounds of torque, said Shaver. Two motors power the robot, but balancing the weight and speed is tricky.

When many others might have thrown their hands up in despair, the SODA team just got right to work on repairs.

“We just felt like this was our year to win,” said Clary-Gelinas. “We did everything we could, including fix the robot in 20 minutes.”

It was the second round of the finals when the team managed to get the arm back on, and that round earned them 19 points, which was the highest score to achieve, she said.

Each year, the SODA team has competed against far more seasoned teams, from magnet schools centered around engineering to Texas schools with far more resources. Yet each year, the novices have taken at least third place.

“We are definitely the underdogs in the BEST robotics competitions here in New Mexico and in Texas,” said senior Garrett Blystone, “because we’re a new team, and we’re a new school.”

“We’ve only been going for three years,” said Clary-Gelinas.

SODA’s robotics team made it to Texas for regional competitions their very first year, as well as last year. This year is the first year the school has won first place in the state competition.

Every year the team has competed, they have had to deal with robot arms breaking, said Blystone.

“And every year, we always come back to win it in one way or another,” Blystone said. “We’ve always had the dedication to fix our robot before the next round.”

The team beat out Rio Rancho, who have been the top dogs in New Mexico competitions for several years, Clary-Gelinas said.

On Friday, Nov. 9, Space Suit will travel to Texas to compete in the BEST Regional Robotics WARP XX Competition, scheduled in Dallas on Saturday.

When the team’s robot performed the fuel bottle switch, a couple of the judge’s jaws dropped in amazement, Clary-Gelinas said.

The team knew they had won first place for the robot, but they had no idea they would win first place overall for their engineering notebook, presentation, website, booth and T-shirts.

“So, we’re sitting there, and all I’m wanting is just third place, because that’s what we’ve gotten the last two years,” Clary-Gelinas said. “I’m just, ‘as long as we get third place, we’ll be alright.’”

When the team didn’t hear the school’s name for third place, they obviously worried. They stood in a circle holding their breath, wondering if they might make second place, she said.

When they didn’t hear the school’s name for second place, wild speculation began among the teammates.

They had not been able to get their booth set up in time, and that loomed in their minds.

There was dead silence before the first place winner was announced, said Clary-Gelinas.

“They said, ‘The first place overall, the BEST team this year,’ then they paused, ‘goes to,’ again there was just dead silence, ‘The School of Dreams Academy,’ and we start screaming,” she said bursting with energy, reliving the excitement.

“Everybody just jumped at that point,” said the chief document officer, Danielle Garcia with a broad smile.

Everyone from the school, the middle school robotics team, the team spirit dance troupe and the Spartan mascots all proudly made their way to the podium to stand with the high school team as they received their first place trophies.

“It’s unforgettable what these kids did, the adversity they overcame,” said Jerry Esquivel, the charter school’s robotics coach and digital arts teacher.

“The whole competition is about being a business,” said Creighton Edington, math and robotics teacher. “So, they have a website, their marketing plan, their engineering notebook and then the robot itself is basically their prototype to show their technical skill.”

The teams present themselves as companies vying for contracts with such entities as NASA, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

The robotics competitions are important in many ways. Not only does it encourage students to apply themselves in their math and science studies, and possibly pursue engineering degrees, but there are potential scholarships and college recruitment opportunities as well, said Edington.

University deans of engineering and business schools elect to judge or assist in the competitions, and look for students their university might recruit.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.