Three teams unite to breach the walls of an enemy base and destroy key targets. Months of 15 hours work weeks spent in preparation for the task armed with power tools, welding and computer programing.

What sounds like a high tech military operation is actually a description of Woodrow Wilson’s robotics team, the Robocats, and their preparations for First Robotics Competition.

This March, the Robocats participated in First, a competition with challengers at schools from as far away as China and Brazil. The year (see team results here), the task was to build a robot that could scale a wall, move various objects or shoot balls to destroy a target. Each school also has to build the course on which they practice.

Unlike sports and most other extra-curricular activities, robotics is led by teachers who volunteer their time for the love of the task and the benefit of the students. Additionally, robotics pits schools of all sizes and funding levels against each other. Whether teams are well funded with a machine shop to build robots like Jesuit Prep, or are building the robot and its course in the hallway on the second floor of Woodrow Wilson High School with donated power tools, each battles it out on the same playing field in the competition.

A group of three teachers from Woodrow Wilson’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Academy, a couple dozen students and mentors from Texas Instruments have made this the most successful year in the short history of the program.

After losing key seniors last year, teachers Terry Tolleson, Daniel Garrison and Brandon Carver didn’t know how a team comprised of 90 percent rookies would perform. So when the Robocats’ robot was one of only three of the 43 teams whose robot could scale the wall, other schools started to notice.

Robocats robot scaling the wall at Robotics First.

Robocats robot scaling the wall at Robotics First.

“I enjoy seeing the students doing what even they didn’t know what they were capable of,” Tolleson reflects.

First Robotics competition has six schools form two teams in the preliminary rounds, which work together to score points by completing various tasks. Not knowing what the other teams’ robots will be able to do and dealing with malfunctioning parts, all while competing to score points, engages the students problem solving skills, quick thinking and team work. The Robocats made a name for themselves by tackling the most difficult challenge, scaling the wall. Though the missed out on the finals, they look to build on this year’s great success and qualify for nationals next year.

Sophomore Henry Lloyd jokes that robotics is “just an excuse to power tools,” but his teammate, sophomore Archer Hasbany adds that it is an opportunity to work on problem solving skills and get exposure with robotics. This year, they had to rebuild their entire robot just minutes before the first round due to a rules violation, putting their problem solving skills to the test.

While there are many practical implications of working with robotics, it is the atmosphere and camaraderie that draws students to give so much time and energy to the team. “We are like a family,” says junior Samantha Raveles, “we get on each-others’ nerves, but we work well together.”

During the competition sophomore Henry Lloyd found himself making changes to the robot, covered in aluminum shavings, looking more like a disco ball than a high school sophomore. But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

See the Robocats in action here: 

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