On a recent Thursday afternoon, a robot named Sam zipped around inside a Santa Monica garage. Controlled by several teens gathered around it, the robot used an extendable claw to pick up blue cones and deliver them to various posts.

Sam is the creation of nine local middle and high school students who formed the SaMoTech Robotics team last year.

The team is currently participating in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge, an annual competition for 7th to 12th graders in which teams of up to 15 students design, build and program robots to compete against each other in games throughout a several month-long season.

Despite this being their first year, the SaMoTech team rose to the rank of #1 in Southern California, went undefeated in 19 qualifying matches and is headed to the Regional Championship on Saturday March 11 with a chance to advance to the World Championship if they win.

Since September, the SaMoTech team has met at least twice a week in the garage of Chris Rowe, a parent of two members who also serves as one of the team’s coaches.

However, Robert Kirbyson, another parent and coach, said that the students are really the ones in charge.

“The kids are running it,” he said. “They run their meetings, they figure out what they want to do.”

In addition to the team’s competitive success, Kirbyson said he has seen the students grow and develop valuable new skills as a result of the expereince.

“I think being a part of this robotics team is giving the kids an advantage in many different areas,” he said. “Obviously they’re learning engineering, they’re learning robotics, but also you can see all of them have grown so much in terms of their self confidence, their leadership…”

He noted that just being a part of the FIRST community – an organization associated with major players in the engineering field including NASA and Raytheon and also has numerous scholarship opportunities – is also beneficial to the students.

SaMoTech team member Alexa Kagiwada said that competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) has broadened her view of the possibilities within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“I think FTC is really incredible because it lets you discover all different fields of STEM,” she said. “There’s just not one specific focus, you could explore lots of different things, so I think just exploring a lot of the different categories and learning a little bit more about all the different types of sciences is what I learned.”

Teams from Crossroads School and John Adams Middle School will also be competing at the upcoming championship event.

The John Adams Middle School team is where many of the SaMoTech members were first introduced to robotics and Kirbyson said many of the students were disappointed that there was not an option for them to continue participating in FTC at their high schools, which do not have teams.

While this is what led to the creation of SaMoTech – and Kirbyson said that part of what makes the team special is that it is truly community-based, with students from multiple local schools – he hopes to someday see a robotics team established at Samohi, where the majority of the students attend.

“Hopefully, long term, we’d love to see them persuade the school district to make this part of the public school system,” Kirbyson said.

To learn more about the SaMoTech team visit: https://samotechrobotics.com/index.html


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Grace Adams

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...