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South Salt Lake Journal

Cottonwood High Robotics Team competes in nationals

May 20, 2019 11:54AM ● By Bill Hardesty

The Cottonwood High Robotic Team all smile before leaving for the International First Robotics Competition in Houston. (Photo Courtesy of Cottonwood High Robotics Team)

By Bill Hardesty |[email protected]

In the movie, “October Sky,” a group of West Virginia high school students led by Homer Hickam, found a way out of their coal mining town by building rockets. The movie was based off Hickam's book titled, "The Rocket Boys." 

It might be said that the Cottonwood High Robotics Team is our local "Rocket Boys [and girls]." The students on the team started with a goal in December 2018 and, by April, they competed at the International First Robotic Competition in Houston. 

“[It is] an opportunity to prove to themselves that they can compete with others and learn from it,” Coach Yuri Perez commented before the competition. 

The 13-member team, part of the South Salt Lake Promise program, was formed in December 2018. The competition rules were released in January giving the team about six weeks to design, build and test Underdog,  a fitting name for the robot and the team. 

Over the months, the team has developed a symbiotic relationship with the AMES Robotics team also located at Cottonwood High School. They shared expertise and experience with both teams going to the Houston competition. It was the first time for the AMES team as well.

Besides working on their robot, the team found time to teach robotics to elementary students as part of the Refugee 4H STEM program for 10 weeks.

Ninety percent of the team are refugees from seven countries. With aid from the community, including engineering expertise, the team received the Rookie All-Star award at the Utah regional competition at the end of March. They competed against 50 teams from California, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. Now they will compete against 400 teams. 

International First Robotic Competition

This year's competition centered on a red and blue alliance. Each alliance consists of three different teams each match. This means team X might be a partner in your alliance and in the next match, they are your competition. This brings an interesting dynamic to the competition — how much to reveal to a team when they are your alliance member because in the next match, they could use the information against you.

The mission of the alliance is to fill the supply ship with cargo pods (large plastic balls). They needed to attach a hatch before doing so because if not, the balls would roll out. Each alliance also sends one robot to the other side to play defense. There isn't much time between matches for the alliances to develop a strategy.

"Sometimes you have 10 minutes to talk with the other team. One time we had a minute. Either way, you start with a smile," Aye Chan, a robot driver, said.

Each match is two and half minutes. But, the first 15 minutes is called the Sand Storm period. The windows of the arena are blacked out for the competitors. They need to drive blind, use a camera on their robot or preprogram the robot. 

Teams collect points throughout the competition.

The Houston experience

Things didn't go exactly as planned for the Cottonwood team. They lost in the early matches but finished strong.

"It was very good to see our team working together. We worked to the last match. We fought to the last moments of the game, even if it didn't matter," Abdul Bari Ayubi, team captain, reported.

Muna Abdullahi, the media girl, provided her insight, "It didn't matter if we won or lost. It was the experience."

While the experience was great, team members had to give up other experiences like performing at the school's talent show or going to junior prom.

Another interesting aspect of the trip was the cultural aspects. By high school, many parents are used to sending their children on school trips. Yet, for some team members' parents, the idea was foreign. In Muna's case, Perez talked with the parents to reassure their daughter would be watched over. In another case, a vice principal stepped in. 

"We are like a salad," Yousuf Hnidati, the human reloader, commented, "We are more than a team. We are a family. We have gotten to know each other's culture."

Once home, the team had two weeks to prepare for another competition. The MASA competition asks each team to identify a local problem and recommend a solution. The team focused on developing ways how each person can be more water conscious. This summer some team members will be working on the First Lego Team at the 4-H Refugee center.