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Three Bishop’s School students help local robotics team take second in world competition

Bishop's School students Nicholas Liu, Michael Zeng and James Hou attend the First World Championship in robotics April 23.
Bishop’s School students Nicholas Liu, Michael Zeng and James Hou (from left) attend the 2022 First World Championship in robotics April 23.
(Sue Fan)

Contrary to their team name, a group of students, including three from La Jolla, that call themselves “The Clueless” took the No. 2 spot April 23 at the 2022 First World Championship in robotics.

At the competition, held over four days in Houston, Bishop’s School students James Hou, Nicholas Liu and Michael Zeng and their 12 teammates played eight qualification matches before being seeded first into a 24-team elimination round.

For the record:

9:04 a.m. May 4, 2022This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Nicholas Liu’s first name.

They placed second among the 7,000 teams that entered worldwide (the 7,000 were whittled down through local and regional competitions).

The Clueless also was named the “Inspire Award Finalist,” given to a team that stands out technically while having an impact in its community. The award is based on competition, an engineering portfolio and a presentation.

The Clueless team robot is modified for each competition.
(Courtesy of Michael Zeng)

“The work paid off,” said Michael, 17, a Bishop’s senior. “This is definitely our most rigorous and intense season yet. I think a lot of our members are putting in upward of 30 hours a week. … We really wanted to win this competition.”

The team members, who hail from six different schools in San Diego, work out of a teammate’s garage workshop.

“We’re pretty decked out,” Michael said. “We have lots of work benches and a ton of tools. … Some of us are there almost every day after school working on the robot. We also put in a lot of time on the weekends.”

Most of The Clueless has been together about six years. In previous seasons, the team earned the San Diego regional championship three times and qualified for the First World Championship four times.

“We’ve spent tons of time constantly improving and tuning,” Michael said.

He said parts of the world championship competition were collaborative, with two teams working together in an alliance against two others.

The robots are built to perform commands requested at the competition, such as grabbing and moving things and building structures with blocks.

“Before the match, we’ll go and meet with our alliances and figure out how we’re going to collaborate,” Michael said. “We have different autonomous routines and different strategies, depending on our alliance’s capabilities. Sometimes we’ll modify our robot or theirs slightly in order to make us compatible, and then we’ll hop on the practice fields together and work everything out before the actual competition.”

James, 17, a junior, said his teammates are “just really talented. We just learn a lot from each other.”

He said the robotics community also is full of great people and that he enjoyed interacting with teams from Israel and Jamaica.

For Nicholas, an 18-year-old senior, the best part of robotics is that “a lot of skills we learned ... are applicable in the real world,” like when he worked in a group to create face shields for health care workers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Zeng, Nicholas Liu and James Hou (from left) with their awards
Bishop’s School students Michael Zeng, Nicholas Liu and James Hou (from left) show their awards from the 2022 First World Championship robotics competition.
(Sue Fan)

Michael said he appreciates the project management the team learned and executed.

“We aren’t given a blueprint for what type of robot to build,” he said. “We have to go from strategy and brainstorming to prototyping to building and optimization.”

Michael and Nicholas are two of the six Clueless members graduating from high school this year, and both will head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. Michael will major in electrical engineering and computer science, hoping to use his robotics knowledge well into the future.

Nicholas isn’t sure of his plans yet but said, “I just really enjoy tinkering and experimenting with things.”

James, who will be the most senior member of The Clueless next school year in both age and experience, said he is looking forward to “continuing this legacy. [We will] keep this alive and make us stronger in the future.” ◆