Umatilla School District Students Advance to Robotics Competition

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Noah Mele, left, and Haegon Peterson, students at Clara Brownell Middle School in Umatilla, prepare their robot for competition on Jan. 27 at Clara Brownell. Three teams from the school will advance to Oregon's FIRST Tech Challenge on March 9-10 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Gerard)

The almost accidental point of progressive competitions for school students has to be the progress part.

Three teams of middle school students at Umatilla School District scored enough points in a Jan. 27 robotics contest to advance to Oregon’s FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition March 9-10 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.

That’s one aspect of the progressive part. There is much regarding learning and achievement to go along with the competition advancement.

“At that FTC level students make a robot that’s up to 18 inches square and it competes in a variety of different tasks,” said Heidi Sipe, Umatilla School District superintendent and robotics coach. “Traditionally we have had 14 FTC teams in our middle school. The program was originally intended for high school students, but students in grades seven through 12 can participate.”

FIRST — an acronym condensing “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” — and the creative and technical program for youth has grown tremendously since a college professor started it in 1989. It has now expanded to 80 countries.

Sipe said after having done FTC competitions for a number of years the middle school students have proven themselves capable of doing the projects.

FIRST steps of many

Students in the district can get their robotic feet moving forward starting in elementary school in the FIRST Lego League.

“This is where the kids are building with Lego bricks and they will have just one component that will move and they program that,” Sipe said.

Fifth graders from McNary Heights Elementary in Umatilla received the Motive Award at a Dec. 9, 2023, robotics competition in Hood River. That award focuses on the way a team embodies the spirit of the program and understands what it means to be a team.

Sipe explained the robotics competition eventually caps with high school youth in the FIRST Robotics Challenge.

“FRC is for really large robots,” Sipe said. “We have two of those teams in our high school, which is pretty rare. Most of the teams competing in FRC have a high school enrollment of over 1,500 students. Our high school enrollment is just over 400. But we all love it and it’s great for kids.”

She said students who graduated from high school programs run the FTC tournament in December for middle school students. She said these older students are called “robo parents.”

“So parents through the years who have had kids in robotics come back and volunteer, so it’s entirely self-supporting,” Sipe said.

Making connections

She said “the sky’s the limit” for technical creativity within the competition, and the same vivid blue zenith also seems to apply with the technical expertise that might appear at the events.

“One of our favorite things happened the very first year we had the high school team in action, was when my son, Caden, had been learning how to program and code from books he had bought,” Sipe said. “When we got to the competition, he was really struggling with the code. So he put out a request for help. There are game announcements in the pits where they’ll say such-and-such team needs assistance, and people from other teams will come around and help.”

This time the request attracted a “ringer,” she said.

“This gentleman walked up and asked, ‘Talk me through what you’re doing,’” Sipe said. “Caden said, ‘I’ve been using this book and I’ve been trying to learn it from here.’ The man chuckled and flipped open the book to a certain page. Caden thought, ‘What in the world?’ and the man said, ‘I wrote that book.’”

Sipe said that kind of scenario happens all the time “because FIRST is really full of opportunities for kids to interact with people who are really passionate about the work they’re doing.”

She said there are exciting opportunities for students who are graduated from high school after steeping themselves in the robotics program.

“We just had one of our students graduate from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, one of the top engineering schools in the nation,” Sipe said.

She also said there are perks for the adults.

“Every single staff member is a volunteer,” Sipe said. “Robotic season is wildly long.”

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