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Nampa school hosts Idaho's first middle school robotics state championship

Fifteen middle school robotics teams gathered at East Valley Middle School on Friday to compete in the first middle school-only state robotics championship.

NAMPA, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

Fifteen middle school robotics teams gathered at East Valley Middle School on Friday to compete in the first middle school-only state robotics championship, the finalists of which will head to Dallas in May for the international championship.

“They have so much fun,” said Jesus Gomez, robotics teacher at East Valley Middle School who helped organize the event. “They just eat it up, and so we love it too.”

Teams had to qualify to be at Friday’s competition, and all but two teams hailed from Nampa schools: Five from East Valley Middle School, four from South Middle School, three from Lone Star Middle School, and one from West Middle School. They were joined by a team from Caldwell’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School and one from Hailey’s Wood River Middle School, according to a press release from the district. The top five teams from Friday’s competition will compete in Dallas.

The top five teams were the Annihilators from East Valley Middle School, South 2 from South Middle School, the Astromechs from Wood River Middle School, South 4 from South Middle School, and “The Undetermined” from Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Benaiah Rosser, a homeschooler who is enrolled in Wood River Middle School’s robotics class, had already decided he would be doing robotics again next year.

“It takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of time,” he said, but added that figuring out how to prepare the robot to navigate the arena and not get stuck is part of the fun.

Teams tailor their robots to compete successfully in the challenge, often working on them over the summer or at the beginning of the school year, Gomez said. Benaiah said his team had rebuilt their robot three times over the course of the school year.

But one of East Valley Middle’s teams had a somewhat late start this year, said Aidon Hall, a seventh-grader. His team formed and began working in earnest on their robot right before the Christmas break, just two days before their first competition.

“We’d come in after every single class period that we could, just to get it done,” Aidon said. “And we ran into so many problems, but eventually we did it. So that’s all that counts.”

Aaron Davis, a teammate of Aidon’s, agreed that the fun is in the process.

“I try to learn more and adapt to hard situations,” Aaron said.

Each robot looks a little different, but is made from similar parts: motors, wheels, metal pieces, nuts, and bolts. The teams design their robots to compete in a challenge that changes each year, explained Jeremy Silvis, technology and engineering teacher at Wood River Middle School. This year’s challenge is moving mobile goals — a metal pole with branching prongs and an octagonal plastic base — into the team’s portion of the arena. Moving the goals into the team’s home third of the arena is worth 20 points, and placing the goals on a teeter totter-like platform so that it balances is worth 40 points, Silvis said

In the qualifying rounds, two teams are paired together and compete against another pair of teams in a two-minute match. In the first 15 seconds of the match, teams are told to operate the robot in “autonomous” mode, meaning the robot attempts to navigate the arena and ideally move mobile goals based on how it has been coded to operate without a student controlling it, Silvis said. The next minute and 15 seconds is the “driver control” period, in which a student operates the robot using a controller.

Based on their scores in the qualification round, each team is given a rank, and from there gets to choose which team they want to partner with for the competition portion of the championship.

In addition to earning points in competition, teams have to submit an engineering notebook in which they log changes to their robot, and are interviewed by the competition’s judges, Silvis said. This helps weed out any “mom and pop”-built robots, he said.

Prior to this year’s middle school-only championship, teams would compete in the high school state championship, and still often compete against high school teams, Gomez said. Notably, middle schoolers tend to hold their own against teams of seniors taking AP Calculus and already committed to prestigious schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said.

“We were competing really well,” Gomez said. “Sometimes, older kids will over-engineer and the little kids will simplify it and get the job done simply,” he said. As teams continued to compete well, the Nampa School District started building out its robotics programs. Now, every middle school in the district has four to five teams, he said.

At the high school level, Columbia High School has a robotics team that is open to everyone, and freshmen can take an Intro to Robotics course, said Cindy Arnzen, career and technical education director for the district, via email. While other sophomore through senior-level engineering classes do not have the word "robotics" in the title, students often learn about the subject in those classes, she said.

The district’s middle school teams often travel to other parts of the state and eastern Oregon to compete against high school teams, Gomez said.

Parents at the event said they would like the district to offer additional robotics programs at the high school level so that their children can continue pursuing it.

“We’re hoping that somehow there’s funding, and of course, passing the levy would help with that,” said Jaci Johnson, referring to the $8 million levy that Nampa residents will have the opportunity to vote on March 8. The levy was developed to replace the district’s current levy that expires in June, and will use a portion of property taxes to fund “teachers, staff, and current programs,” building security, and technology, among other items, according to the district’s website.

Johnson’s son, Colton Johnson of Lone Star Middle School, competed Friday.

“I think it has been his favorite class,” Jaci Johnson said, noting that she appreciates the style of Colton’s teacher, Aaron Moiso, in letting the kids try, fail, and try again until they succeed.

Robert Hall, Aidon’s father, said he is eager to support his son’s interests and would like to see a high school robotics program somewhere in the district.

“It’d be nice to find somebody to jump on board and carry on that tradition,” Hall said.

Gomez said it’s not clear if a portion of the March levy would include funding to support such programs, but equipment can be expensive, so funding is important. Gomez estimated that $70,000 worth of robotic components was present at the competition.

Though the start-up cost can be high, it’s typically somewhat stable afterward as the same parts can be reused year after year, Silvis said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the availability of robotics programs at the high school level in the district, including Columbia's robotics team and other course offerings.

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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