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Beyond Expectations: Student celebrate high levels of success

St. Vrain Valley students are competing at levels far beyond expectations – and they are winning.
Members of the 1619 Up-a-Creek Robotics team test and program their robot during an after-school meeting. Photo by Kerri McDermid.

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April 23, 2022, is a day that Olga Rokhlenko and Alex Fong, both seniors at Niwot High School, will never forget. As the FIRST Robotics World Championship was counting down its final seconds, Olga, Alex, approximately 80 of their fellow teammates on the Up-A-Creek Robotics team, and thousands of spectators were cheering as loudly as one might imagine during the final seconds of any closely matched world championship event. Three! Two! One! Bzzz! And just as quickly as the final round had started, the buzzer signaled the end of the 2022 FIRST Robotics season – but the day’s celebrations were only beginning. 

As judges tallied their final scores, a hushed silence came over the arena. Knowing the level of preparation, practice, and skill everyone had contributed to reach this level of performance, the team waited with bated breath – much the same as when an Olympic figure skater tries to project graceful confidence to the camera while knowing they just completed the best performance of their career. And then the moment came – the screens overhead lit up in blue and Team 1619, Up-A-Creek Robotics, was named world champions, the first team in Colorado to win the recognition.

“It was just a moment of pure happiness,” said Olga, who serves as the team’s Technical Program Manager. “Confetti was going off, and all of us were laughing, crying, and hugging each other. It was such an elated feeling.”

Behind the smiles, hugs, and confetti were the hundreds of hours of practice, teamwork, and preparation that went into that life-defining moment for these high school students. The Up-A-Creek Robotics team includes students from across St. Vrain Valley Schools and is supported through the GEAR Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to inspiring young people to pursue STEM careers through competitive robotics. In addition to the Up-A-Creek Robotics team, the GEAR Alliance also runs a FIRST Tech Challenge team for students in grades 8-10 (which also brought home a world championship trophy in 2022) and FIRST Lego League teams for students in grades K-8. 

“We run like a business, but one that churns out a world-class robot in a timeframe that’s faster than most any company would be willing to accept,” shared Olga. “We learn a lot and we compete to win, but we also compete to learn, which I think is very important to who we are.”

As they build their competition robot completely from scratch (they typically weigh in at 150 pounds and stand five feet tall), students are supported by 25 industry mentors and serve as leads in all areas of development, including construction, strategy, hardware, controls, fabrication, and software.

During competition, the robot first runs autonomously to perform tasks that earn points, and then is turned over to student drivers who work collaboratively with their alliance team to score additional points. Points can be earned by completing various actions, including collecting balls, launching balls, hitting targets, and climbing structures.

“I think a lot of our success also comes from the way our robots are made,” said Alex Fong, the team’s Robot Software Lead. “We have six to eight weeks, just like everyone else, to build our robot, but the one thing that stands out between some of the best teams in the world and the majority of the teams is iteration.” 

 The operations side of the organization also includes student leads in administration, safety, outreach, engagement, and of course, team spirit. The team also performs thousands of hours of community service by mentoring other teams, running food drives, hosting camps, and showcasing robotics and STEM activities at many community events. 

“We are a team at the end of the day, but we are also a family at the end of the day. The thing that really makes us who we are is the fact that we play hard, but we love harder,” shared Olga. “And it’s not only because we’re building a robot, it’s because we also share our love of STEM with our community.”

Across St. Vrain Valley Schools, competing to learn is at the heart of the district’s robotics program, which has grown to over 200 teams in the past 10 years. Bolstered by investments in STEM and design-thinking integration, students gain a strong competitive advantage as they move through their educational journey. Robotics competitions teach much more than technical skills, but have deep learning foundations in important life skills such as cooperation, communication, leadership, and taking risks.

“The impact robotics has on students is truly life-changing,” shared Alexandra Downing, the Competitive Robotics Program Manager at the Innovation Center. “We have students that may be shy or speak a different language, but once they are in robotics, their world changes – they make friends, build confidence, and learn English.”

This year, the Up-A-Creek Robotics headquarters is already full of activity and learning in preparation for the upcoming 2023 competition cycle. In one room, you will find a team working on metal fabrication and running a lathe. In another, students gather around a table filled with wires and electrical components. In the computer lab, the latest CAD drawings are projected onto a large screen for review. In the main area, another team of students is testing software updates to their autonomous system as the robot moves quickly around the room to collect balls and launch them at a target. In a conference space, the outreach team is discussing engagement strategy and reviewing video from the previous week’s community event, while next to them, the strategy team and application team are testing updates to their score-tracking app.

“One of the mottos of FIRST Robotics that we very much take to heart, is that we are more than robots. We’re not using kids to build robots, but we are using robots to build kids,” added Olga. “I think there is not a single person that has come through these doors that has not felt transformed when they leave.”

Unprecedented Levels of Achievement

Throughout the state, across the nation, and around the globe, St. Vrain students are reaching the highest levels of success. These celebrations represent only a small sample of the outstanding achievements of our students over the past year.