People in Your Neighborhood: La Jolla student’s robotics passion reaps benefits for him and others
Local high school student Michael Zeng is celebrating his passion for robotics and sharing that love with others, winning a national award in the process.
Michael, 17, an incoming senior at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, is the co-captain of a local First Tech Challenge robotics team called The Clueless.
During robotics contests, the team is tasked with design, construction, programming and operation of a robot to compete against other teams’ robots.
The Clueless won the FTC San Diego regional championship this year after winning the Arizona regional championship and holding one of the five highest scores globally in 2020.
For his leadership and expertise with robotics, Michael won one of 10 national Dean’s List awards in the First Tech Challenge Robotics Competition during the FTC 2021 awards show in June.
“The spirit of the Dean’s List award is getting other people engaged in what we’re doing,” Michael said. In addition to demonstrating technical prowess, “a big aspect of the Dean’s List award is really promoting the spirit of STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in your community.”
Michael said he’s achieved this through his team’s focus, which “is not just building our own robots but helping other people build their robots.”
“One of our favorite events every year,” he said, is when The Clueless hosts a summer camp for First Lego League, “which is kind of like a younger version of First Tech Challenge.”
During the weeklong camp, “we recruit about 20 students from around the area and we teach them the basics of FLL mechanics and programming,” Michael said. “A majority of students go on to join school teams or even formed their own teams.”
Michael himself is a former FLL student, having joined his elementary school’s FLL team in fifth grade. “What’s pretty funny about my story is that in my first-ever year of FLL and my first-ever competition, my team placed last at the qualifier,” he said.
However, the disappointing finish spurred Michael’s interest in robotics. “That summer, I literally spent hundreds of hours just browsing YouTube and looking at what the best robots did, and I came back next year a lot stronger,” he said.
In seventh grade, Michael started his own team and won for robot performance at the Southern California regional competition. He then started a YouTube channel inspired by the videos that ignited his interest.
“My goal was pretty much to become one of the people that I thought was really legendary that inspired me once,” he said. His YouTube channel, bit.ly/MZengYT, now has more than 1,250 subscribers and more than 360,000 views.
“I really did achieve my goal with that channel,” Michael said.
In pursuing his passion for robotics, Michael said he has built an arsenal of technical skills, including proficiency with computer-aided design, leading to his current position as the team’s design lead.
Aside from mechanical and software skills, Michael said “the most valuable thing that I’ll be taking away is leadership. My team is currently 15 members and the season lasts 30 weeks, so it’s definitely not an easy task to be working with such a large team over such a long period of time.”
“We’re trying to build a really competitive robot,” he said. “At the same time, we want to maintain good relationships with our coaches and mentors and sponsors and continue all our efforts outside of our own team,” such as hosting the summer camp and other events throughout the year.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael also started a project called “Print for the Cure” (printforthecure.com), a web platform in which people who need personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks — medical and other essential workers — can fill out a form and request it.
Anyone with a 3-D printer can then “sign on to the website and claim these requests and ship directly to these requesters,” Michael said.
“We actually built a website in about three weeks and launched it,” Michael said. The team’s own 3-D printers and those of others have “collectively donated over 25,000 units, which includes things like door handles, face shields as well as the mask straps” that alleviate pressure on ears.
“It was a ton of work,” he said, “but really a rewarding and proud experience.”
“Robotics has definitely been a life-changing experience,” Michael said. He added that he hopes his mentorship helps others cultivate a similar love of robotics that will “open up a pathway for them in the future.”
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