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Craig Middle School robotics team wheeling its way toward state

Andy Bockelman
For Craig Press

Though working in close proximity has been more difficult than ever within the past calendar year, Craig Middle School students found a way in a minimal amount of time to get in gear and join together for a common goal.

And, as a result, they’re going even further now.

The CMS robotics program recently qualified for the Colorado State Competition through the FIRST Tech Challenge during a qualifying tournament Saturday.



Go for the gold

The CMS team, named after “Barnyard” character Biggie Cheese, was among 30 groups in Saturday’s state-qualifying tournament, done remotely with judges checking in throughout the day with competitors.

The group earned second place with the Connect Award, which focuses on highlighting teams that go above and beyond in engaging the local STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) community.



According to the award description from FIRST: “The team that wins the Connect Award aggressively seeks and recruits engineers and explores the opportunities available in the world of engineering, science and technology. This team has a clear team plan and has identified steps to achieve their goals.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a program aimed at students as young as preschool age and as old as high school with the goal of enhancing learning in the fields of science and technology.

“The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership,” reads the organization’s mission statement.

Though this was not the first year Craig students participated in the program, it was their first in the specific level of competition. The previous year saw CMS compete in FIRST Lego League with smaller components on a designated table surface, but this time around they were engaged in FIRST Tech Challenge, which involved much larger hardware.

The Craig Middle School robot fires off a ring. (Andy Bockelman / For Craig Press)

The process involved designing, constructing, and programming a functional robot.

All the right parts

Cristina Vanzo, Isadora Hitz and Wes Atkin have been advising the group of six students, all of whom are eighth-graders.

“These guys only had eight weeks to build and program, so we’re so proud of what we’ve done,” said Vanzo, a CMS teacher who specializes in engineering.

The robot features multiple motors and a servo motor for its functions, one of which is rotating a sweeping mechanism made from rubber tubing to collect plastic rings. The rings are then shifted into position to be shot from the robot’s body to targets, which includes netting, pegs and slots.

“Our favorite part to test was probably the launching, once it was all put together, so we could see how far it could shoot stuff,” said student Josefina Kuberry.

The robot is connected via wi-fi to a mobile app on a cell phone, which is also hooked up to a pair of video game controllers.

“We were originally going to have it be on one controller and be controlled by one person, but we thought that would be way too complicated, so we decided to use two controllers,” said Hannah Kilpatrick.

Wyatt Tucker noted that coordination between teammates working the controllers is important.

“With two people it gets a little hard,” he said. “The servo is pretty fragile, and one time we were doing too many things at once and ran into a wall and it broke. Timing is a big part of it.”

Diego Gallosa Quiñones played a big part in the measurements and design of sections of the robot.

The Craig Middle School robotics team gathers around their machinery during a Saturday tournament. The robot was constructed throughout an eight-week period for the FIRST Tech Challenge. The team placed second and qualified for the state event. (Andy Bockelman / For Craig Press)

“I think my favorite part was testing the prototypes and designs,” he said. “It’s a lot like those scenes you see in sports movies where, ‘Oh, is the ball going to make it into the hoop before the buzzer?’ It’s kind of suspenseful, and then when it worked, it was a great sense of accomplishment. It felt amazing to have something you’ve thought so much about work.”

Levi Bogue said he’s still impressed by the group going from their early stages to the finished product.

“It really puts into perspective how hard we worked on this,” he said.

The importance of human interaction

Planning things out for the robotics was made trickier via Zoom meetings, so it took some time before instructors and students were able to truly get everything in motion.

“We had to wait until we were full-time, here in person, at the school so we could meet together,” Vanzo said. “Since we’re a rookie team, we really had no idea what we were doing when we first started, and we’re super-proud of where it ended up.”

A significant difference between students’ learning a year before was going from block coding to the more complex Java coding for a combination of autonomous and remote control movement.

“We started coding a couple months before we started actually building the robot, because none of us had any experience with Java,” Kuberry said.

CMS competitors were also able to receive online mentorship from a Denver-area high school student who taught them more about the coding process.

As far as the construction part of it, Vanzo said teachers were learning just as much through trial and error, which involved equipment like soldering irons, 3-D printed models, cardboard prototypes and more.

“We just failed and succeeded, failed and succeeded,” she said. “We constantly had to modify our robot over and over.”

The program also received help from Northwest Auto Glass, Kevin Sauer, Ty Kuberry and Nick Colgate in honing elements of the machinery.

Members of the team also had to contribute to a 15-page portfolio on the process and engage judges in a five-minute oral presentation.

“They’re required to talk about budgeting and outreach and all of those things. It’s really treating them like a professional engineer,” Vanzo said.

For team member Carrie Brown, the robotics program has been a fun and challenging activity but just as importantly it’s been a welcome return to what life was like before the coronavirus pandemic.

Craig Middle School robotics teammates maneuver their robot to collect plastic rings. (Andy Bockelman / For Craig Press)

“With COVID, we have lost so many opportunities and so much normalcy in our lives has been taken away, it’s like it’s been revoked from us. It’s been really great to have these great teammates and these great mentors to support us and have a laugh every once in a while,” Brown said. “For me personally, it’s really great to have these people who are there to support you there and know that they’re there for you. It’s a great team experience. We’ve been able to learn about the pride that comes with doing FIRST and how important it actually is. Being able to participate in this has been so impactful.”


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