Despite its small-town location, Orcutt Academy High School has no shortage of students with a knack for robotics.
The school’s 38-member robotics team is called FIRST 3512 Spartatroniks, named for the school’s Spartan mascot and for being the 3512th robotics team in For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, the international organization that holds the FIRST Robotics Competition.
According to club parent and robot coach Scott Rowe, the Spartatronikks are the biggest high school robotics team in the Santa Maria area.
“There’s teams elsewhere on the Central Coast, but if you take like little Orcutt, right, 500-plus student body … we have a full 35 to 40 students on our team and you can combine all the other high schools, Righetti, St. Joe’s, Santa Maria, all those high schools with probably ten thousand students, and they don’t have any,” he said.
In the FIRST Robotics Competition, high schools teams from around the world engineer and build robots to perform tasks in contests against other teams.
By the time the News-Press stopped by Orcutt Academy High School to visit 3512’s members on Thursday evening, the team had finished all of its competitions for the year. As the News-Press checked out the team’s “build room” in which the robots are constructed, club parent and faculty liaison Rick Soto explained that the students working in the shop were part of 3512’s electrical and engineering sub-teams and were working on its competition robot for a demonstration the following evening in the gymnasium of Orcutt Junior High School.
“Our competition season is over, but now basically we’re staring our demonstration season because at the end of the school year we get a lot of requests from elementary schools, from science nights, STEM nights, you know, to get a demonstration going,” he said.
The Spartatroniks’ first regional competition of 2019 was March 15-17 at the Los Angeles North Regional in Valencia, according to a press release. The game for 2019’s competitions involved alliances of three teams using their robots to pick up discs and balls and place them in a “cargo ship” on a playing field.
As shown in an animated demonstration video on FIRST Robotics Competition YouTube channel, the robots attach the disks to openings in the body of the cargo ship and two “rocket ships,” functioning as “hatch panels.” Attaching hatch panels is worth two points while successfully loading the balls or “cargo,” into the ships is worth three.
The Spartatroniks ranked 15th in the Valencia competition’s qualification matches and was chosen as a member of the fourth-seeded alliance with a team from Hawthorne and another from Taipei City, Taiwan. They made it to the third round of the semifinals and were ultimately defeated in a tiebreaker.
From March 28 to 30, the team competed in its second and last contest of the year at the Ventura Regional. Though 3512 had “high hopes” to win the contest as it did in 2018, Mr. Soto said the team ultimately lost and thus failed to qualify for the World Championships in Houston, Texas.
Mr. Rowe said it sometimes comes “down to the draw” that determines which alliance a team is placed in.
“The alliance that we got chosen with to do the actual matches with … was kind of in the middle of the pack. So we did what we could with that and did pretty good,” he said.
The robot coach said that the greatest benefit of the FIRST Robotics Competition is that it gives an outlet for students who may have succeeded in shop classes for welding, woodwork and auto mechanical work, courses that are now “virtually dead.”
Spartatroniks students dedicate around 30 hours per week on top of their regular schoolwork during the three months they spend building the team’s robot. Through this they not only learn engineering, they apply their academic skills to constructing something practical and preparing themselves for their careers.
This application of engineering knowledge involves the students learning about electronics and how to properly use tools and machining equipment. Some freshman students enter the program not even knowing how to properly hold a screwdriver, but get taught the basics during the team’s summer training sessions. However, it takes a few years for the students to operate certain equipment like the milling and lathing machines.
“Those machines will kill you, so you have to be very careful with those,” Mr. Rowe said.
Divided into sub-teams like electrical, mechanical, computer design, software, and outreach, 3512 provides its students an opportunity to pursue their fortes under the umbrella of robotics.
Sophomore mechanical sub-team member Braden Gray told the News-Press that he enjoys “getting hands-on.”
“I usually do a lot of the mill work. The machining side has always caught my interest,” he said.
Though last year she worked on the mechanical sub-team, sophomore Fiona McGinnis said that this year she found her real strength doing work in the electrical team.
“It wasn’t really my thing because I wasn’t really into the machines,” she said of her old role. “I also was the safety lead so I got to experience more sub-teams by going around and helping them, and when I helped electrical I liked it a lot more and I felt it was more interesting and better suited for my career choice,” she said.
Miss McGinnis wants to be an electrical engineer.
Junior Isabel Guerro serves as the team’s marketing lead. She organizes fundraisers, maintains contacts with sponsoring businesses, writes grant applications for Spartatroniks, and handles the team’s business plan, which is actually “something that we present at competitions.”
Mr. Soto said the team raises about $100,000 a year to cover its costs. Whenever the team qualifies for the World Championships, sending all its members to Texas alone costs $40,000.
The team’s business sponsors include Boeing, NASA, the U.S. Defense Department, and defense contractor Raytheon, where Mr. Rowe works as an electrical manufacturing engineer.
Mr. Rowe said that by giving grants to programs like FIRST 3512 Spartatroniks, these companies are investing in their potential future employees.
“All these big companies have a big pot of money and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got. Who wants it?’ Because they know they get their name out there for these students that are doing this, that have a passion for engineering. They’re the people who are going to be working for them someday,” he said.