Niles robotics team wins first-place award at FIRST Robotics competition

Published 9:29 am Friday, March 29, 2019

NILES — A Niles robotics team has a likely chance at competing in the statewide FIRST Robotics Competition after a recent first-place victory.

After a battle against roughly 40 other teams, robotics team Excel claimed the win, alongside the Robohawks and the Globetrotters during the West Michigan FIRST Robotics competition at Grand Valley State University in Allendale.

By Wednesday evening, the team of six students was already back in the workshop in Industrial Park to strategize for another upcoming competition next week in Forest Hills. The group consists of Miloh Padgett, a 12th grader; Michael Wentworth, an eighth grader; Mason Marazita, an 11th grader; Nathan Gustafson, sisters Audrey and Aliea Bakerson and their father, Michael Bakerson, who is a team mentor. The students are all enrolled at the Berrien RESA Math and Science Center. 

FIRST Robotics is an internationally-renowned competition that gives youth the chance to put their science, engineering, math and technology skills to the test. This year’s theme is Deep Space, and students had six weeks to design, code and build a robot for the challenge. Competing teams who work their way to the top of the ranks get the chance to represent their communities at an international level. They are also eligible for numerous scholarships.

For Padgett, the first-place win earlier this month was one of the team’s most significant accomplishments.

“For me personally, this is my fourth year on the team and we have yet to win a competition with me on the team,” Padgett said. “The last time we won a competition was six or seven years ago.”

The win was also particularly special to Excel members because the team faced off against some teams that had more than 50 members. As a small team, Excel members have to learn how to do a little bit of everything to be successful. This, Excel teammates said, helped them to stand out from the rest.

Additionally, the team faced several breakdowns on their robot that made the event especially challenging, including a malfunction that caused the robot’s brakes to stop working. Without time to fix it, drivers of the Excel robot, Aliea Bakerson and  Marazita, had to coast to a stop or use the game field walls as a breaker. The experience caused the team to select a name for their temperamental but beloved 116-pound robot: Tokyo – which comes from the movie “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”

Players earn points throughout the battle for completing tasks with the robot. In this case, the robots begin on a platform and have to gather balls and hatches and place them in a rocket ship that has multiple levels. Robots then have to climb onto a raised platform within the last 30 seconds of the game.

The top eight teams also got to pick alliance teams to help them compete. Audrey said the win could not have been achieved without the alliance formed between Excel and the Robohawks and the Globetrotters.

Marazita said the physics and math concepts they learned in the classroom at the math and science center are put into context throughout the competition. The students said it is satisfying to culminate their skills into something tangible.

“My favorite part about it is seeing all of your hard work come to life, especially when you’re building a robot,” Padgett said. “You put all these hours into it and you can literally see it move and turn on.”

For Audrey and her sister Aliea, participating in robotics gives them a unique opportunity to encourage other girls to take an interest in STEM.

Audrey was crowned Miss Apple Festival 2018, and Aliea holds the title of Miss Niles 2019. As community leaders, the girls use robotics to show people that they can wear tiaras and also love working with robots.

“They were in awe about the bots and I was like, ‘hey, you can do this [robotics] and this [Miss Apple Festival], it is not one or the other,” Audrey said. “It’s something I struggle with as a female in STEM. There is a [notion] that, ‘you can’t do STEM. You should do this.’ I’m like, ‘I will do both.’”

Competitions tend to draw in large crowds and during this last competition, Audrey said she got a chance to share her experience with a group of Girl Scouts.

Excel was also recognized with an Industrial Design Award.

“It really is the energy level of the kids and acknowledges them being knowledgeable about the bot,” Michael Bakerson said. “They can explain what it is and what it does.”

As they prepare for the upcoming competition, the team said they look forward to honing their skills and showing competitors what the Niles team can do next.