Junior High Robotics Club ‘Mindstorms’ for competition
By ANTHONY FLORES
As most students head for the exits at the end of the day at Liberty Hill Junior High, 13 – divided into four groups – huddled around small vehicles made of Legos.
These are the students that make up the LHJH Robotics club, and the small vehicles they are busy tending to are the robots they’ve worked hard to program, design and build.
This week, in particular, is unlike previous ones as they prepare to compete in the TCEA Mindstorms Robotics Challenge Saturday.
For the competition, the club is divided into four teams, each with a robot that must be designed and programmed to accomplish a specific set of goals.
Each group is made up of students who specialize in different areas and work together to complete the established goals.
The self-titled Jazzy Bee Boys team is comprised of Captain Alex Rivas, Carson Cearley, and George Spivey. The group of three stands by the practice table as they discuss how to correct the mistakes their machine continues to make after a few trial runs.
“Basically, how we work as a team is that we work in phases,” said Spivey. “Carson and I build it, and then Alex starts to code, gets the code ready, and we start planning. Once Carson and I finish the build, Alex takes over.”
As the boys detail how their robot works, it’s easy to see how dedicated they are to completing a successful attempt. With each failure the team faces, it goes back to the drawing board, undeterred. The original design proved to be too large to work with, forcing the team to tinker with the design.
“I realized that it’s really wide, and part of our goal is not to touch the pipes on the board,” said Rivas. “So, if we have something really wide and we’re trying to move something, we’re going to hit something else. Thus, I began taking apart the legs and trying to put them under the robot. Eventually, we got it right.”
The dedication to their work comes from their personal inspirations for joining the club. Rivas believes this is a good step in the right direction for his goals later in life.
“I think in the future, I want to go into a job with programming, and I think this is the best place for me to start,” he said.
For Spivey, being part of robotics is the beginning of a path he hopes leads him to the stars, or as close as he can get to them.
“I want to go into a job that programs and also lets me build something,” said Spivey. “I want to work for NASA because my childhood dream was to be an astronaut.”
As the boys work to correct their errors, on the opposite side of the practice table is the group that teacher Bonnie Reichert refers to as her dream team — four girls with varying levels of experience in robotics.
Keeping up a tradition of naming themselves after candies, this all-girls’ team goes by the Sour Patch Kids. For three of the members, competing at the highest level for their grade is a familiar experience, making it to state last year. The shortcomings the girls experienced in their first run at state have stuck with them, inspiring the new design of their current robots.
“We didn’t put in as much effort as we could last year,” said team captain Bren Masiakowski. “So, this year, we worked way harder, and we’ve progressed a lot more.”
Like the Jazzy Bee Boys, the girls have learned to scale down their robot after suffering from that mistake at last year’s state competition.
“We didn’t make it huge because last year we had a huge claw,” said Masiakowski. “It was the type made for construction, and that was a horrible idea. We had to tape a big wheel to the side to balance it.”
Team member Haley Pacheco says the team needs to “make use of our time at the competition to program our robot beforehand.” A belief that captain Masiakowski strongly supports.
“Before the competition, we have to try and get as many tasks done as possible because you have two to three minutes once your program is finished to just to stand there,” said Maisakowski.
While the girls have a deep competitive drive, it isn’t the desire to compete that is their driving force for being in the club. Each has their own personal reason for dedicating their time and effort to the activity.
For Hayleigh Yeargain – a member of robotics since the fourth grade – the love of robotics and programming stems from her father, who programs and codes for a security company.
“My dad does a lot of computer stuff, and he introduced me to coding and programming,” said Yeargain. “It made me start doing robotics in fourth grade – what started as block coding – and I’m trying to go farther than that now.”
The new face on the team this year is Madelena Flores, and it’s her interest in engineering that brought her to the club.
“This is my first year, and I’m just learning it,” she said. “Sometimes, they give us mystery challenges, and I do those to get a feeling of the code. The main reason I joined robotics is that I’m interested in engineering, and I think it’s a good way to learn.”
When it comes to team captain Masiakowski, her inspiration was simple, concise, and straight to the point – spy movies. Humor aside, the team captain first got the itch for robotics watching fellow team member Yeargain compete.
“I went to Hayleigh’s competition one year, and I was really excited about it,” said Masiakowski. “The pressure, I could see it, and I thought that’s definitely something for me.”
When observing each group and listening to their conversations, the dedication to what they’re doing runs deep. Jayce Taylor, member of the Circuit Breakers team – like the rest of the students in the club – sees beyond competition, relishing in the feeling of accomplishment at seeing their robots come to life.
“It gives you a good sense of accomplishment, and when your robot goes in and does all the things you need it to, you feel good because it worked, and you did that,” said Taylor. “It challenges your brain.”