Student-Built Robots Clash at Competition Supported by NASA-JPL

Student-made contraptions of a metal and a little magic battled each other in front of cheering and dancing high schoolers at the annual Los Angeles regional FIRST Robotics Competition over the weekend, an event supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Of the 44 participating teams, five triumphed, earning the chance to compete this April at the FIRST international championship tournament in Houston.

The raucous event at the Da Vinci Schools campus in El Segundo saw six 125-pound robots racing around the playing field during each 2 ½-minute match as pounding music filled the room and a live announcer narrated the action. Working in alliances of three teams on each side, the robots jockeyed for position and banged into each other, using a variety of mechanical devices to retrieve large, foam rings from the floor and launch them into two target chutes. In the final seconds of each round, the bots could earn extra points by hoisting themselves off the ground to dangle from a metal chain.

“The energy in the room was amazing this year,” said Kim Lievense, the manager of JPL’s Public Services Office, who coordinates some 100 volunteers for the event every year. “These teams and their bots really left it all on the field, and it was so great to be there to see it yet again.”

The 24th year for this L.A.-area competition, the event is one of many under the umbrella of the nonprofit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which pairs students with STEM professionals. The competitions give students hands-on experience with engineering and problem-solving, team-building, fundraising, and other business skills.

Teams receive the rules of the game – titled “Crescendo” this year and themed around arts and entertainment – in January. Using FIRST’s technical specifications, students have just weeks to design, build, and test their robots, devoting hours after school and on weekends to the project.

“There were a lot of really impressive robots, and students, this year. The engineering, the manufacturing, the programming in the software these kids are writing – it’s quite complex,” said Julie Townsend, one of three event judges from JPL. She has been volunteering with FIRST for nearly 20 years as a judge and coach and is JPL’s point of contact for the NASA Robotics Alliance Project, which supports NASA “house” youth robotics teams across the country.

“Without these programs like FIRST, high school students don’t have the opportunity to do this kind of engineering,” Townsend added. “It’s hard, but they eventually get to experience the joy of a functioning system that you designed. You failed 16 times and then you get to see it work flawlessly.”

In the end, the winning alliance joined together a team from Hawaii with two Southern California teams: Team 368 (“Team Kika Mana”) of McKinley High School in Honolulu, Team 9408 (“Warbots”) of Warren High in Downey, and Team 980 (“ThunderBots”) of Burbank and Burroughs high schools in Burbank, which is a NASA house team supported by JPL.

Two other L.A.-area teams won awards that mean they’ll get to compete in Houston as well: Team 687 (“The Nerd Herd”) of California Academy of Math and Science in Carson, and Team 3473 (“Team Sprocket”) of Diamond Bar High.

For more information about the FIRST Los Angeles regional, visit:

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