Great Gears: La Jolla High School robotics team heads to World Championship

The young men of the La Jolla High School robotics team have come a long way in short time. Just one year into the group’s existence, the team is going to the VEX Robotics World Championships, April 19-22 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The team qualified for the championship tournament, themed “Starstruck,” and will need to program a robot to fling stars and cubes over a three foot wall into zones of varying points. The team — seniors Franklin Ye, Macky Broido, Jae Yoon Kim and Alex Smith, and sophomore Alex Levine — has been perfecting the robot since September.

Franklin said, “We still have a little bit of work to do before we go to the World Championship — we always do (laughs) — because every time we compete, we note what went right, what we wrong, what we need to improve and so on, and adjust the robot accordingly. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re adding more gears, adjusting the coding and making a few other changes.”

The road to the Championship was one of steady growth for the team, aka 133T (teams are called by either their high school or a team name), which started last fall when they signed up for the VEX tournament and got their challenge details. The task the robot must complete is the same throughout the year, but only the most successful proceed beyond local tournaments.

Team 133T started entering into — and clearing — regional meets and winning awards that qualified them to move onto the higher levels. On Jan. 22, The Bishop’s School hosted a regional tournament at which the La Jolla High team won the Excellence Award that qualified them for the VEX State Championship.

At the State Championship in Bakersfield, March 3-4, the La Jolla team competed against 42 teams and received the Design Award, which qualified for the World Championships.

“A big factor in our moving to the State and now World Championships is our notebook,” Macky explained. “You have to keep an engineering notebook that documents the design process over the course of the season. We worked really hard at keeping our notebook up to date, we spent a lot of time at meetings writing down what we did — including CAD models, design drawings and calculations — and all of it had to be explained and recorded. By the end of the challenge, we had a 300-page notebook. It was very thorough and the judges like that.”

Added Jae Yoon, “In theory, if you took the notebook and gave it to another team, they should be able to recreate everything you did just from the notebook. It includes diagrams, and how we came to those decisions.”

Maintaining a detailed notebook will also help next year’s team “carry the legacy,” Franklin said. “Every year, the challenge changes, so we want to make sure the team next year knows how to make certain design decisions and the thought process.”

Other than the notebook, the team watched other teams and other robots to see where the others were successful and whether they could incorporate those elements into their robot.

Lessons learned from last year

In the team’s first year, their efforts were less than fruitful. Franklin, Macky and Jae Yoon founded the team as a hobby, and the three of them explored the VEX Tournament to put their skills to the test.

“We weren’t nearly as organized as we were this year, I think last year we got no points for the notebook. We were building the robot at the competition,” Franklin said. “Last year, Jae Yoon got out his laptop to change the coding in the middle of a match. People were looking at us like we were crazy.”

Further, they didn’t have a stable workspace or money for supplies. “At first, it was really rough getting fundraising and financial support and establishing a place to work,” Franklin said. “We worked out of four different garages. But now we’ve settled at one of our teammate’s garage.” To raise money for supplies and space, the team hosted a winter robotics camp with Muirlands Middle School students and will continue to fundraise for travel expenses.