Skip to main content

Sandy Journal

Alta, Waterford robotics compete against top teams in world championships

May 30, 2022 05:05PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The best of the best.

Regions around the world sent their elite robotics teams to compete in the FIRST robotics world championships in Houston. Two Sandy schools, Alta High and Waterford School, were amongst those top 450 teams.

“It’s world class, the best teams from around the world,” said Waterford coach James Harris, who has had six teams in the past 12 years qualify for worlds. “There were tens of thousands of people there. We played with pairings that helped them as much as helped ourselves.”

Nine-year Alta High coach Ron Strohm said it was the school’s first trip to worlds.

“The atmosphere is just overwhelming at first,” he said. “But you just go in and compete, match after match, doing the best you can. It’s a different atmosphere for sure, but it’s the same competition.”

The competition challenges high school students to build industrial-size robots to play a field game in alliance with other teams, while also fundraising to meet their goals, designing a team “brand,” and advancing respect and appreciation for STEM within the local community.

Many teams have an opportunity to learn from professional engineering consultants, learn and use robotic software and hardware as well as compete in area tournaments and have a chance to qualify for college scholarships. 

Both Alta and Waterford competed at the world robotic challenges in “a big warehouse, the size of an entire city block,” Strohm said. “It’s tough compared to what we have in Utah. A lot of people say you go to Utah (to compete in regionals), you better bring your big boy pants; it’s hard to win here in Utah. But when we got over to worlds, the competition was so hard. People have been doing these teams for years and they’ve got high annual budgets, $250,000 annual budgets, to build robots.”

While neither team were top contenders, they took away an “incredible experience,” Strohm said.

Alta won the Chairman’s Award in the Idaho regional April 2, the week before Utah hosted its regional. The Hawks received an automatic bid for worlds as well as a banner they could display at their robotics booth in competition and now, in their classroom. They also added the Idaho regional robotics trophy that sits in the school’s trophy case.

In Houston, the Hawks competed both for the worlds title of the Chairman’s Award as well as in the robotics game.

“The Chairman’s Award is the highest award you can get in robotics, even higher than winning first at worlds. Everyone wants it,” Strohm said, adding that Alta’s team competed against other regional Chairman winners at worlds, finishing 48 out of 72 teams.

Since there was less than one month from the time they won in Idaho to when they needed to compete in Houston April 20-23, there wasn’t a flight with seats available for the entire team of 28 students, combining both the rookie and veteran team. So, with the support of sponsors, the team took a bus all night to arrive in time to go straight to the competition site.

Once there, they had a little bit of time to tweak their robot before competition began.

“Our robot was not 100% until we got there, but we fixed it right away and they were actually able to compete and climb and do really well,” Strohm said, as the students improved the shooting mechanism. “They fixed the climber as well, so they were able to do that probably 95% of the time.”

In Idaho, Alta helped another team with their shooter, practicing the “co-opertition,” or cooperative competition, value known in FIRST.

Alta’s team also has helped others get involved and improve robotic skills, including local Girl Scouts, Scouts, and at the Ronald McDonald House as well as other area schools’ teams. They have hosted summer camps for youth wanting to get involved in robotics.

Those experiences were some of what helped in their presentation for the Chairman’s Award in Idaho, Strohm said.

“Every time we have been close to winning it (Chairman’s Award) in the past, we either made a mistake in paperwork or on the presentation. This time it was flawless,” he said. “I actually watched it in the very back and when they finished, the judge just went, ‘Wow.’ Her comments were along the lines of, she’s done 100 of these, and they all sound the same, but ours was just different. It was real, not played out or memorized.”

Strohm also is proud of his robotics students; some veterans will receive a robotics and engineering letter at the end-of-the-year ceremony.

“Our students put in so many hours,” he said. “It’s hard for our team to actually be a No. 1 team when they are the ones building the robot. I don’t get involved too much. I don’t want to be like the Pinewood Derby dad that builds the car his kid races. These students decide what kind of robot they’re going to build, then I’m there to help them or teach them how to build that type of robot. If it’s a crappy robot, then it’s a crappy one, but one that they came up with the idea, learned how to do and figured out there may be a better way to do it. I’m not going to tell them a better way. I would rather them make mistakes, fix their mistakes and learn from those mistakes. They really get a lot from that and they’re proud of their robot—no matter how good or how bad it is. When the part of the robot that they built works in a competition, they’re proud of that.”

Once Alta left the competition, they had an overnight bus ride back to Utah where the team began planning for next year’s competition.

“It was a great experience to see what all the other teams are doing and how they are doing it. On the way back, they were trying to figure out how they can build a robot in three weeks, not eight or 10 weeks. That’s a big key right there that they found out; they got to build faster and work around problems rather than rebuilding,” he said.

Alta sophomore Ella Hansen also competed in the Dean’s List Award, after winning it in Idaho.

Named after the founder of FIRST robotic competitions, Dean Kamen, Hansen “presented her thoughts what FIRST has meant to her and what she’s done with FIRST robotics” and was supported by Strohm.

Hillcrest High junior Nicholas Jacobs, who won the Utah regional Dean’s List Award, also competed at worlds.

His coach, Clief Castleton, received the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award at the Utah regional competition. Shortly before the COVID-19 shutdown in FIRST robotics in 2020, Castleton had paid tribute to the recently deceased Flowers, who inspired and supported many students in his 30-plus years of collaborating on the development of FIRST robotics.

In 2020, Waterford had qualified to compete in worlds, but it was canceled during the pandemic. In 2021, the FRC world championship again was not held, so having Waterford’s rookie team be invited as a wild card from the 40-team Utah regional was gratifying, Harris said, as all 16 members on both his rookie and veteran team, some who had qualified in 2020, were able to go to Houston.

“We go for inspiration. One of the things that both our teams pride themselves in is that we have a student designed, student fabricated, student robot. Our kids can do amazing things,” he said. “It’s very much a student engineering challenge.”

It begins with a lot of sketching and building.

“We start with sketches, then go to cardboard before making a laser cut out of wood. We build prototypes and only when we’re sure what we’re doing do we go to metal,” Harris said, adding that the team has a sponsor that helps with sheet metal. “We’re always making upgrades or repairing or replacing parts that get damaged. It’s part of preparing students for understanding how engineering projects are integral to the modern world, how they can participate both at the design, fabrication, testing, verification and project management.”

The process begins in January when they learn the year’s robotic challenge and then, they design, test and rebuild the robot to compete in regional competitions in March and April.

Waterford also competed in Arizona where its veteran team was on the runner-up alliance. That same team lost in the quarterfinals in Utah.

“Our students have done well; it’s been a good year,” he said.

While the rookie team wasn’t selected for an alliance in the Utah regional, the students stepped in when another team’s robot broke and helped that alliance to the “rubber match” or deciding game of the finals before falling to the top alliance. Their contribution prompted the team’s invitation to worlds.

At Utah regionals, one of the teams they formed an alliance with was from Taiwan.

“It was neat because one of our students is Taiwanese and he interpreted for us. We have played with teams from Turkey and from Brazil. It’s good to share a common interest and find commonalities there,” Harris said. “The best part for these kids is having that passion and having that opportunity after a couple years away.”

At the Utah regional, the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science received the Judge’s Award and finished 21st overall.

Other area high school teams that placed in the Utah regional competition include Bingham, ninth; Corner Canyon, 12th; Olympus, 17th; Hunter, 24th; Cottonwood, 25th; Jordan, 27th; and Hillcrest, 40th.