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Newport-Mesa students shift into overdrive for district robotics competition

Students from across the Newport-Mesa Unified School District went head to head and bot to bot on Saturday in Costa Mesa High School’s thunderdome, aka gym.

Fourteen teams from Costa Mesa Middle, Costa Mesa High, Newport Harbor High, Estancia High, Corona del Mar Middle and Ensign Intermediate schools vied for awards in the district’s robotics competition.

The alliance of WIN, from Newport Harbor, and EagleBot, from Estancia, was crowned tournament champion. The other finalists included two teams from Ensign — Doofenshmirtz Inc. and Technique.

Other awards were given for creativity, best robot build, sportsmanship and best use of programming.

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The annual robotics competition started four years ago, said Christie Darnall, a teacher on special assignment for the district’s education technology department. It has grown “tremendously” from its original three schools, she added.

Teams of two to five students are tasked with completing the VEX Robotics Turning Point game, which changes annually.

“We’re really just trying to build our program. VEX is an extremely competitive robotics program and so we have a lot of new teachers, new students,” Darnall said.

“We decided to have a district competition to get up to that point where we can start branching off and competing against other districts and in the world tournament,” she said. “There’s a VEX World Tournament, which is a huge tournament in April. That’s kind of our goal … to get to that point.”

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Each match is about two minutes and begins with a 15-second autonomous round in which robots function entirely on programmed instructions. Robots are then controlled by drivers.

Teams are randomly split into two alliances — red and blue — with each alliance made of two teams each.

This year’s task was to get as many points as possible by turning “caps” — 9-inch disks that are red on one side and blue on the other — or placing them on one of six posts throughout the playing area. Teams also could earn points by turning flags.

In addition, a series of three platforms is in the middle of the 12-by-12-foot arena. A red and blue platform is on either side of a yellow raised platform. Parking a robot on the team’s color platform will earn points, but parking on the center platform will earn more.

The team with the most points at the end of the match wins.

Luke Grunburg, a freshman at Newport Harbor, said he doesn’t participate much in the actual matches but serves principally as a multipurpose team member and helps with repairs. He said his team — the Crusaders — had been working since mid-March and that the most difficult part was designing the robot to meet competition requirements.

“We had another design that was planning to launch the ball through a conveyor belt system, but it breaks the rules. So we had to resort to a little bit of scrapping, which has been hectic,” Luke said. “The easiest [part] would be going after school to the classroom and working on the bot independently, because that wasn’t as stressful.”

Morgan Heinig, an eighth-grader at Ensign, was the engineer for her team, Technique, which won the Create Award.

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She got into the robotics program because she was always interested in engineering, but the most rewarding part of the competition was meeting people from other schools and having fun with her friends, she said.

Robotics programs have picked up around the area in recent years. In March, the Orange County fairgrounds hosted the FIRST Robotics Competition, and the Ocean View School District held its annual competition on Monday.

According to Darnall, Newport-Mesa has had several robotics programs cycle through the district curriculum for about a decade.

“[Robotics] is something that students can be part of a team,” she said. “They can also show their own individual creations, and there’s that competitive aspect to it. VEX Robotics in particular is a little bit like a sporting event.

“So, I think it helps kids have this outlet of being able to innovate and create and show their … engineering and design skills so they can get to that next level. With a program like this, there’s always a next level.”

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