Oakland hills school’s robotics team competes in world championship
By Lou Fancher
Imagine two dozen young people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with bright, eager minds working in six-member squads to solve complex robotics challenges. Using individual skills and applying clever team strategies, they rely on creativity, democratic leadership, focused communication and, if the truth be told, hilarity, fun and friendship to surmount top-level endeavors.
It happens every weekday at Head-Royce School in the Oakland hills, where the Robohawks club, founded in 2010 in a private home’s garage, has expanded to become a highly competitive team of 25 middle and high school students. Competing in one of the VEX Robotics leagues, students in the club qualified for the 2022 VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas this month after winning the Northern California VEX Robotics Championship at Redding in March.
Students spend more than 300 extracurricular hours designing, building, and programming their robots during each season. Averaging eight to 10 tournaments per year, the Robohawks have qualified for the world championship annually since 2013 and have won the NorCal State Championship four times in the last 10 years. Of more than 16,000 teams from 29 countries, the Robohawks 8000 teams are ranked among the world’s top five to 10 teams.
At this year’s world championship, the Robohawks competed with 800 high school teams and 500 middle school teams — the cream-of-the-crop competitors arriving from among Vex Robotic’s 20,000 teams in 50 countries. Coach Phil Chin said this year’s club benefited most from having high school seniors who have been members since fifth grade.
“They have a tremendous amount of experience. The younger kids develop skills from watching older kids,” he said.
Chin said those skills include being “incredibly hard-working — and resilient, because they build a robot, compete and maybe it doesn’t work so well. They’re continually revising their robot. The older kids are not only interested in succeeding for themselves but devote a lot of time to younger members. When I and they joined, we learned a lot from the previous members. We feel a responsibility to pass that along.”
VEX Robotics participants are expected to construct and code a robot from scratch using an assortment of pieces and software. Each year, VEX organizes a new competition with a different theme. Typically, teams in paired alliances compete against another pair to secure the most points. Points accrue by completing various tasks, such as picking up and depositing rings or placing a mobile goal into a certain zone.
Team captain Jack Chin, 18, has been a member since fifth grade and plans next year to study economics, philosophy and political science at Pomona College in Southern California.
“I’ve learned how to make everyone feel they’re part of a bigger thing,” he said when asked about his role on the team. “They want to do their best for the greater good. Leadership is communication and deciding as a group the goals for a practice or for an entire session. Then everyone is a part of one mission. After that, you remind them of that every day.”
At the recent state competition, he said one oversight made by the team was not leaving enough margin for error to work out little quirks a robot can develop.
“We kept pushing the hardware to the max. Our first matches were shaky because of that, but by the end, it ran really well.”
Asked about future competitions, Chin said continuing to cultivate relationships with other teams is a priority.
“We brainstormed with one guy who I saw there in the past and had communicated with. He picked us to be his alliance partner for the elimination rounds.”
First-year team member Akhil Pullela, 15, recalled watching the team’s robot drift to the right instead of in a straight line at the state competition. Unable to pinpoint the problem quickly and under a tight timeline, he and the team searched diligently through every line of code and tested parts.
Eventually, “we discovered the robot thought the motors were running at equal speeds, but one side was significantly stronger than the other,” Pullela said.
He said his “first-tournament butterflies” were definitely active and knew that a broken part could ruin a competition. Fortunately, Pullela said a “healthy team dynamic,” which he attributes in part to having male and female members and to a captain like Chin, has established a nonhierarchical problem-solving atmosphere. “Even if you’ve been on the team the longest, you don’t have more say than anyone else.”
Avery Lu, 16, remembers one competition during the season when the seniors were unable to attend and she drove the robot.
“It gave me an opportunity to learn. I found strategies like going fast to the middle goals and stacking the goals at the end. I learned about myself that I could be scared and then achieve something if I just push past fear.”
Lu said she sees robotics as an invitation to build real solutions to problems, like a more proficient arm or sturdy chassis.
“I end up feeling accomplished and also part of a team. It’s cool to do stuff yourself and help a team succeed at the same time.”
Coach Chin said Robohawks overcame difficulties presented by the pandemic — working remotely the first year, then set back from a summer start by “homelessness” in 2021 after their space at Head-Royce was repurposed to accommodate social distancing.
“The most successful teams pull themselves together, motivate each other and inspire each other to contribute in an individual way. They may specialize in building, programming or driving the robot, but all the pieces have to mesh together. I find people are motivated to put in the work when they feel they’re contributing in a meaningful way. They’re learning, but it’s that contribution that’s meaningful. I try to help them find that: Each kid has something special, a talent that helps the team. The key is to tap into that for each kid.”