The Durango High School robotics team is heading to the FIRST Tech Challenge state championship this weekend in Fort Collins.
In the team’s inaugural year, they competed in the FIRST Tech Challenge state qualifier competition on Jan. 28 and took home first and second place in the Think Award last weekend. The Think Award recognizes a team’s demonstration of the engineering design process and problem-solving. By placing first in the category, the DHS team earned the right to participate in the state competition.
The team is part of Jordan Englehart’s Applied Physics class at DHS. Normally, the class competes in the Aerospace Design Challenge, but this year wanted to venture into robotics. Englehart said he and the students did not expect they would place as high as they did.
“I think we definitely surpassed our expectations in the competition itself,” he said. “There were 18 teams; we placed right in the middle. I think we got 11th and 12th place, both of our teams were pretty neck and neck on points.”
However, to win the competitions, Think Award students must submit an engineering portfolio for their robot that details how students developed, tested and revised their bot. The competition itself involves the robot placing cups on rods of different heights.
The goal of the team was to create a robot that could stack a cup at 34 inches. Each team is given a starter kit that includes a main robot body and motor. Students then have to modify the robot by building arms that can vary in length to accomplish the task using a 3D printer.
“The students really did a great job weighing out their own designs, testing it and revising it, and ultimately documenting it so that we could compete for that award,” Englehart said.
The robot’s main body is around 4 inches, which is what makes building arms that can extend to 34 inches a daunting task. The robot itself can be no taller or wider than 18 inches with the arm attachments at their lowest level.
The competition involves students navigating the robot around grid that is 12 feet by 12 feet. The goal is to use the robot to move cones and place them on rods varying in size. The students control the robot using a remote control. However, they can earn bonus points if they program the robot to accomplish the tasks autonomously.
“We were really focusing on the remote control section,” Englehart said. “But I think going into the competition, and actually seeing how that’s really an easy way to garner points, we’ve really kind of adjusted our strategy.”
For the state competition, students are trying to develop a way to use color sensors to detect cones and pick them up autonomously to earn more points.
For the students, the competitions aren’t about success but about the camaraderie and the desire to further better their robot. They knew what they were up against because it was the team’s first year working together. They often would talk to other teams to see how they built and programmed their robot to inspire ideas of how they could improve.
Senior Aiden Rosenberg said the DHS team members was at a slight disadvantage compared to other schools because they did not have the support from large engineering firms and people working in the computer science field.
The team started in September after Durango School District 9-R contacted Englehart about starting a robotics program. Previously, the Applied Physics class focus was on an aerospace competition that happens in July.
“We didn’t really know the extent to which people participated in the competition,” said sophomore Peri Wright. “And we didn’t really go into the competition with a whole lot of expectation regarding winning or even qualifying for state.”
For others, the competition was a great way to prepare themselves for what they will be studying in the future. Seniors Gracie Northcutt and Eliza Bosmans want to study aerospace engineering. The two are not in the Applied Physics class but are a part of the Women in STEM club at DHS. They both also used the opportunity to recruit other students to join the Women in STEM club.
“Everything that’s engineering-based is very interesting to me, and it’s what I’m passionate about,” Northcutt said.
Students said they are proud of winning the Think Award despite not placing first in the overall qualifier competition.
“They wanted to see growth and see the struggles that we overcame,” Rosenberg said. “We didn’t start out on an equal footing to other teams, but how did we build and succeed eventually?”
Wright said the most challenging aspect of the competitions have been making the different revisions to the robot and figuring out how it could be better modified to pick up the cones. The students took the entire robot apart after the qualifier competition to create a new arm design for better performance.
Englehart said the team is always looking for sponsors as well as community members who would like to assist the team in competitions. To assist with the team, Englehart can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.