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West Jordan Journal

Robotics team competes in state finals

Feb 27, 2017 12:02PM ● By Jet Burnham

Team members Thomas Moulton, Spencer Hoth, Andrew Whiteley, Matt Nielsen, Gavin Spens, Elijah Throckmorton, Alee Estrada pose for a picture. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Fifteen-year-old Spencer Hoth became interested in robotics through a Lego Mindstorm school class. He is now the oldest member of a local robotics team made up of mostly eighth-graders competing in a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology) Tech Challenge (FTC).
Spencer, who lives in West Jordan and attends Bingham High School, doesn’t mind the age difference.
“They’re really smart eighth-graders,” he said.
The Diet Water team—who are so-named because “Hairless Wombats were too hard to draw”—have a lot of experience despite their age. Most have been competing in the FIRST Lego Leagues for years.
Preliminary rounds for the FTC (for 14- to 18-year-olds) were held in December, and 36 teams moved on to the state competition in February where Diet Water placed 14th out of 36 teams. This year’s challenge required the robot to be able to collect and fling balls into hoops and to activate lights on beacons around the edge of the arena.
Diet Water Coach Michelle Estrada believes technology skills are essential for any job.
“I’m not a technology person, but I recognize the value of it,” she said. “It’s a core value I want to teach my kids.”
That’s why she built a 12-foot-by-12-foot playing field in her basement where the team practices.
“Here, they can come every afternoon, every weekend, stay late on Fridays; some of the kids take the robot home on the weekend to work on it,” she said.  “We have a lot more flexibility than the schools do when they are controlling their computers and technologies and investments. So as a home team, I think we’ve got some advantages.”
Estrada said another of their strengths is teamwork. Each team member strengthens the team with personal skills
Thomas Moulton and Gavin Spens are the team members most knowledgeable in Java. They receive help from Mike Spens, Gavin’s dad, who mentors the team in programming and design.
Andrew Whiteley’s background is in RC (remote control) cars. He is often behind the controls, steering the robot through the competition obstacles.
Alee Estrada found her niche in scouting teams at competitions. She keeps track of each team’s performances because when they get to the final round, top teams form alliances. Alee must be aware of other teams’ weaknesses to beat them and then understand their strengths to be able to work with them.
Diet Water has been working on their robot since August. Being on the team requires a lot of work and time.
“They have their initial ideas, they take measurements, they make a plan, they acquire the materials they need and then they do their testing,” Estrada said. “If it doesn’t work, they go back to the drawing board and tweak it and make it better. That process alone, having to document your thoughts and what you’re learning, is where the real learning takes place.”
Estrada said the competitions are the best part of the year. There is an adrenaline rush as the team watches the initial rounds and sees what ideas others have developed.
“They come home with a list of what they want to improve,” she said.
The learning curve is steep; competitions bring out weaknesses in a design. The team says 70 percent of the competition is on-the-fly problem-solving.
“At one competition, robots kept ramming us, and it shut our robot down,” said team member Matt Nielsen. They responded by building a Plexiglas cage to protect switches and hot-gluing plugs to secure them in place.
Creative problem-solving was required when the team realized its robot needed a better way to push the beacon buttons. Between rounds, team members improvised with what they had on hand: a granola bar wrapped in duct tape secured to the front of their robot.
“Building the robot has helped us have problem-solving skills,” said team member Elijah Throckmorton. “It’s helped us learn how to get through tough problems.”
The skills these students are learning through their experience with FIRST programs extends beyond performing well in competitions.
“I was failing math and science; I wasn’t getting it at all,” Alee said. “But once I started using math and science more in my life—now I’m in honors classes. This has just helped me do better in school.”
According to a FIRST Alumni Study, students involved in FIRST programs see long-term benefits.
FIRST strengthened post-high school success results
83 percent more confident in leadership roles
78 percent more confident in time management
74 percent more prepared for college courses
More information about FIRST Tech Challenges and FIRST Lego Leagues can be found at
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