Last Tuesday night, five students at Sunnyside High School were eagerly working to complete a project that has consumed their time for the last six weeks. These students, members of the high school's Engineering Club, were putting the finishing touches on Bandito Grande, their robot entry into the FIRST Robotics Competition in Seattle this March.
But the FIRST Robotics Competition is more than just a contest - it is a culmination of ingenuity, teamwork and community support, the students revealed.
Last year the Engineering Club became a reality at Sunnyside High School - this year, they are taking their first step into a much bigger world with the Seattle competition.
This young club was founded by its current president, Eugenio Rivera. He had an interest in engineering and wanted a club that would allow him to grow and develop that interest.
This year, the club is made up of students like Rivera - students who are putting their skills together and learning new skills for the FIRST Robotics Competition.
But before these teens could build anything, they needed to find the money. Their advisor, Carl Walthers, searched for grants and managed to receive a $6,500 grant from JCPenney. The company awarded the team the grant because this is their rookie year at the competition.
But $6,500 only covered the entrance fee and robot kit, not additional supplies and certainly not room and board in Seattle during the four-day competition at the Qwest Convention Center.
Walthers kept looking and managed to secure another grant, this one for $3,000, from the Bezos Family Foundation.
A $9,500 budget is not much, but the Sunnyside team has made it work. Most of the equipment for the robot came in the kit they received from the organization, including the robot's brain, a camera for the robot, its battery, wiring and metal frame.
But while the basics of the robot are the same for every team, the design is all their own. It took the Sunnyside team two weeks to design Bandito Grande and four weeks to build.
'It's been awesome," said team member Edgar Perez. "These guys are great. We've had our fun times; we've had our frustrating times - times when we all just sit around and think 'What are we doing? What do we have to get gone'?"
The team seems to overflow with ideas for the robot and those ideas are worked over and refined into something the team can manage.
But the team has struggled, especially with their time. With only six weeks to complete the task, they've been hard at work since receiving the robot kit, including working on it every Saturday.
"Some times they work very well together and get things done," their advisor said, "But their biggest problem is being able to work independently at the same time."
Walther went on to explain that whenever someone is working on a task, the others gather around, fascinated by the work being done.
Rivera, the club president, says that he's learned a great deal on the project, but the hardest thing for him to accomplish has been turning his ideas into reality.
He has unofficially taken the lead on the robot, though the work, skills and decisions are ultimately shared between them all. And that is probably a good thing since Rivera admits that making decisions is a skill he has had to develop over the course of the project.
Earlier this week, they were working on designing the robot's arm. When completed, this arm will be able to pick up an inner tube and place it on a rack. These two movements will be all the team needs to complete the game the robots will play this year at the competition.
Tuesday night was the last day for the team to work on this project. Around 7:30 p.m., the team packed the robot into a giant bag. It was then sealed and will not be opened until it reaches the Qwest Convention Center.
The FIRST Robotics Competition will be held March 16-19. And while they haven't even competed yet, the team is already planning a return visit next year.
Walthers revealed that the challenge for the team now will be raising the money for next year. A budget of $12,000 is common for engineering teams, but the project, technically, does not have a cap on how much a team can spend on the project.
The key to this, however, is to include community members in the project. Walther said the robot project is designed to bring in mentors to join the team and help the students.
"It's easy to have a 100-person team and still not get everything done," Walther said.
The FIRST program also has competitions for elementary and middle school children. While the competition is new to Sunnyside students, Walther admitted that he'd like to see students in the younger grades partake in the competition.
But those plans are a long way off for Walther and the Engineering Club. For now, they are eagerly awaiting their debut at Qwest.
For more on FIRST and their robotics competitions, visit www.usfirst.org.