San Miguel High School students scrambled to make last-minute changes to their robot’s arm before competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge, where they would team up with another group of young engineers and have their robot take yellow blocks and white balls and dump them inside a bin.
San Miguel’s Team Viper was one of 18 from southern Arizona and New Mexico competing in the challenge. The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge is a program where students in 7th through 12th grades learn to design and build a robot and learn coding to operate the robot to complete tasks based on competition guidelines. The program is one of four FIRST programs whose purpose is to interest students in STEM fields from a young age.
San Miguel hosted a FIRST Tech Challenge Qualifying Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 10, where students spent their day testing their robots and problem solving as they prepared for the Rover Ruckus challenge.
After testing their robot and realizing the arm would not be able to pick up the blocks properly, Team Viper students hurried back to their booth and disassembled and readjusted the arm, discussing ideas to make their robot work not just work properly, but more efficiently, during the challenge.
The blocks and balls, which represented mineral samples, were placed inside a “crater.” The students had to drive their robot to pick up the minerals and put them in a “rover.” Teams took turns competing two versus two.
The six students from San Miguel started working on their robot in October, taking time after school and on weekends to meet, build and program their robot ahead of the competition. With the students being in different grades and having different responsibilities, they said it was sometimes difficult to figure out times that would work for everyone to meet.
They also volunteered helping younger students during FIRST Lego challenges, time they could have spent working on their project, said Zitali Lafarga. Her second year participating in the challenge, Lafarga served as a coach, guiding the rest of the group as they learned to build and code their robot.
With less than an hour before their turn to compete, the team’s biggest challenge was getting the arm of their robot, similar to the blade of a bulldozer, to properly extend and retract. The students also had to lift their robot, a thin, square metal frame, about four inches higher allowing it to get into the crater which would add points to the team’s overall score.
Chuck Claver, a coach for T-Rex, the Sonoran Science Academy team of Tucson and father of a team member, said students who compete in FIRST challenges learn real-world skills early on like coding, team building, communication and problem solving. Once they’re in an environment where they see other teams working together, the students learn to value the teamwork skills they’ve gained leading up to the competition, Claver said.
“It almost doesn’t matter whether you’re in retail, whether you’re in engineering or sales, teamwork is critical,” he said. “Very rarely do people go into employment working by themselves anymore. That’s one of the critical skills they learn in this environment.”
Adonis Trujillo, a program manager with Microsoft, credits San Miguel for providing him opportunities to go to college and study engineering. Trujillo graduated from San Miguel in 2009, and was part of the high school’s second graduating class. He said he felt grateful to be able to provide other San Miguel students the opportunity to become involved in STEM activities that could help them throughout high school, college and in their future.
“There’s so much that [San Miguel] did for me to help accelerate my trajectory so I’m hoping that I could do the same for a number of other students,” he said. “This is a really good platform for this community in Tucson.”
Microsoft sponsored the FIRST Tech Challenge tournament this year by donating $16,600 to San Miguel. Trujillo hopes to continue to engage students from the south side of Tucson in STEM programs. He said it’s important to provide access to STEM programs for younger students in the community, starting at the elementary school level with programs like FIRST Lego League Jr., a similar robotics program but for children ages 6 to 9.
“It’s so critical to have diversity and inclusion in these kinds of events and access,” he said. “There’s not a lot of access to these kinds of opportunities so I think this is a big step forward.”