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Students on Montgomery County community robotics team headed to world championships

March 7, 2019

Joy swept across the faces of the junior-high and early high-school aged students who are part of a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team in Montgomery County when they learned that they get to spend not just three, but four days at a robotics competition in Houston next month.

“Whoa, that makes it even better!” said Ani Palacios-Wilhem, 12.

Palacios-Wilhem is one of nine students who make up Phantom, the only FIRST Tech Challenge team from Montgomery County that is advancing to the FIRST Robotics World Championship, scheduled for April 17 through 20 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

The team, which meets at a private school called Rubicon Academy in Conroe, is made up of children from both private and public schools in The Woodlands and greater Houston area. Even though this is only their second year together, the team is one of five teams in the southeast Texas region that advanced to the world championship.

Team member Shreyas Vatts, 13, said he’s looking forward to the championship as a learning experience.

“We’re a young team, and there will be older teams and experienced engineers and mentors there that we can talk to and learn a lot from,” Vatts said.

At the competition, the team members will place their robot that they spent at least the last eight months working on inside a 12-by-12-foot arena with three other robots.

Their robot, which the team has named “Erik,” has to perform different tasks throughout one round of competition: such as attach itself to an apparatus to hang four inches off the ground and move cubes and balls around the mat to rack up points against other robotics teams.

The team members have programmed the robot to recognize certain objects and autonomously perform a skill, but part of the competition also involves a driver and an operator controlling the robot. All of this is done in a two-and-a-half-minute time period.

Diya Shah, 13, said the team has worked hard to design the robot — starting with a plan, making different attachments for the robot and then programming it to do what they want it to. She has volunteered at the championship event before, but said she is excited to be on the inside this time.

“It’s really exciting. It’s still about winning, but everyone’s somewhat calm. They’re all really nice, and you get to meet people from different countries and areas,” Shah said.

The championship is meant to inspire young people from around the world to be science and technology leaders.

The Phantom team is led by coach and Rubicon Academy teacher Katie Kelley, who’s been involved in helping students with robotics challenges for 15 years. This world festival, Kelley said, helps her know that the world’s going to be OK.

“If you can imagine 20,000 kids descending on George R. Brown, pushing robots up and down the streets…it’s one of those things. We’re all there pushing each other to be the best,” Kelley said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we all speak the same language which is robotics and programming.”

With a $6,000 budget, the team has to design all of their robot’s parts starting off with cardboard prototypes and working their way up to the official 3D-printed attachments. They also have to put together an “engineer’s notebook” explaining their steps in addition to securing sponsorships from companies like Shell, Anadarko and Dell.

The intensive process, Kelley said, teaches the kids skills like how to use a drill or a screwdriver, but also intangible skills like communication, problem-solving and hard work.

“It teaches them reality. It’s a lot of practical, hands-on work, (but) you also need to be able to write and talk to people and work together. Those are skills that are also key to having a job…The whole point of this is getting them to be independent,” Kelley said.

Kelley has help from a The Woodlands College Park senior, Jackson Schilling, who is on the “Texas Torque” robotics team there. Schilling comes by once or twice a week to assist and mentor the students as they practice.

“I get to help kids with their futures and see them go far…It’s really rewarding,” Schilling said.

And though Kelley is the team’s leader, she said she also has learned a lot from the team members.

“My students taught me not to be afraid to do things I don’t know how to do. I couldn’t program this robot, but I’m good at the supply chain and the timeline, making sure everything runs smoothly,” Kelley said. “The things that we don’t know, we just jump in and do it. When I get scared, (the students) aren’t.”

jane.stueckemann@chron.com