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East High School robotics team discovers A.I. athleticism

East High School robotics team discovers A.I. athleticism


In a post-apocalyptic world in which man and robots rule the planet, there will be one product more valuable than gold. 

That item, my friend, will be the rubber band! However, if you're in a pinch, scads of zip-ties will do just as well.

"I tell my guys that they can't use duct tape for everything," East High School geophysics, space science and physic teacher Trevor Miller said as his school's robotics teams made last-minute repairs during a recent practice session. "There are other household items they can use."


East High robotics team qualifies for state COVER PHOTO
East High robotics team qualifies for state
East High robotics team qualifies for state
East High robotics team qualifies for state
East High robotics team qualifies for state

Duct tape, rubber bands and those twisty little buggers you use to attach Point A to Point B?

Don't underestimate the "MacGyver"-like ingenuity of Team Epsilon and Team Void. Made up entirely of East students, the two teams have both qualified for the Iowa Championships division of the FIRST Tech Challenge, which was sponsored by University of Iowa's College of Engineering. 

East High robotics team qualifies for state COVER PHOTO

East High School 10th grader Carlos Gomez Paz works on a robot in a classroom. Active in East's robotics team for the past two years, Carlos also participate in school sports.

Attracting the Hawkeye State's best robotic students, the winning teams from FTC-Iowa Championships, held Feb. 28 and 29 in Cedar Rapids, will advance to the World's FIRST Championship, held Apr. 29 - May 2, in Detroit.


Founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST for short, of course) gave middle school and high school kids the chance to develop the "muscle between their ears," which giving them experiences that may impact their future.

Conceived as "sports for the mind," students get to use real world application of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) concepts in an atmosphere that encourages team building, entrepreneurship and sportsmanship.

East High robotics team qualifies for state

Carlos Gomez Paz, right, uses gamepad 1 to drive their robot as Noah Sewalson, left, uses gamepad 2 to control the robot's crane arm to stack blocks as part of Team Epsilon at Sioux City East High School, The team was in serious prep mode as they were just days away from taking on 47 other teams at the Iowa state competition.

That's what the kids get out of it. What about you and me? Well, we see some super-bright kids build cool-looking robot-on-wheels, run them through a series of challenges on makeshift course while working the controls of a juiced-up joystick. 


Perhaps the secret weapon on Team Epsilon was its head engineer Noah Sewalson.

"Noah is a tinkerer who is always trying to make stuff better," Miller explained. "His dad is something of a 'gearhead' and so is Noah."

East High robotics team qualifies for state

Programmer Carlos Gomez Paz, left, and head engineer Noah Sewalson, right, work on their robot as part of Team Epsilon at Sioux City East High School. Team Epsilon -- as well as East's Team Void -- qualified to compete at the FIRST Tech Challenge-Iowa division that took place, Feb. 28 - 29, in Cedar Rapids.

A more accurate term for Noah might be "veteran," since the 10th-grader began working with robotics as a middle schooler.

"I became interested in robotics (in the FIRST LEGO League)," he said. "I moved up to robots in the ninth grade."

That was when Noah met classmate Carlos Gomez Paz, who is Team Epsilon's chief programmer.

"While some kids (in robotics) are shy and unassuming, Carlos has this take-charge attitude," Miller said. "He's a born leader and acts as everybody's big brother."  

This was true for Owen Ballard, a sophomore who was so new to the team that his name wasn't even listed on their Epsilon's official T-shirt.

"They said my name will be listed the next go-round," Owen, a 10th grader who joined Epsilon earlier in the school year, explained.


Miller noted that other Sioux City schools have difficulties maintaining one robotics team. That makes East unusual since the school has two teams and both are going to state.

It is exciting new for East 9th grader Joe DeBates, who is Team Void's jack-of-all-trades.

It is more exhilarating for Jennifer Herrera, who described herself as Team Void's "big picture" person.

"I'm not the programmer, engineering or marketing person," she said. "I'm responsible for the overall project."


According to Miller, every team needs a "big idea" person and every team need a person willing to tinker with temperamental robots.

This is because many educators want their students to master the "4 C's of Education."

By focusing on creativity, collaboration, communications and critical thinking, kids will be better equipped to make it in a 21st century world.

After all, a robot in the FIRST Tech Challenge is simply a vehicle for students to hone their communication skills in a team environment.

Don't tell the kids. They think building robots to do cool crap is fun.


At least we hope they do. That makes the three hours spent every day working on mechanical minutiae more meaningful.

"School athletics is divided into seasons," Miller said. "For instance, there is  a football season, basketball season and wrestling season. Then, there's a break between each season."

According to Carlos, robotics season starts at the beginning of the school and finishes up at the end of the school year.

"We never get a break, since there isn't a real break in our season," he said with a shrug.

That is more apparent in the days prior to a tournament, when practice sessions can easily go into the wee hours of the evening.

"Let's just say I buy these guys plenty of dinners to accommodate their hard work," Miller said. 

Still, we get the impression that members of both Team Epsilon and Team Void are naturally high achievers.

For instance, Carlos is on several of East sports teams while Noah is a budding musician at the Sioux City Conservatory of Music when they're not putting robots to work.

"It's hard work to be on a robotics team but it is also fun," Noah said. "It's challenging but we have a good time doing it."

Let's just hope there are enough rubber bands, zip-ties and duct tape to go around.

POSTSCRIPT: As we were going to press, East High School's Team Epsilon secured a spot at the World's FIRST Championships, Apr. 29 - May 2, in Detroit.


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