19th annual robotics challenge teaches Sonoma County students K-8 the value of teamwork and collaboration

Cooperation and teamwork was on full display at the 2022 Sonoma County Robotics Challenge, where 15 school teams from North Bay schools competed in eight robotics events.|

In the world of technology, big names and personalities often dominate headlines in a cult of personality that makes names like Jobs, Bezos and Musk synonymous with technological innovation.

But 12-year-old Tyler Bower of Mill Valley Middle School has already learned one of the key aspects of engineering and design: teamwork.

Shortly after Bower’s robot failed the “Bull in a China Shop” course at a local robotics competition Saturday morning, he was asked what he likes most about robotics.

“Building things with friends,” he said. “It’s a lot of discussing, problem solving — figuring things out can be fun.”

That cooperation and teamwork was on full display at the 2022 Sonoma County Robotics Challenge, where 15 school teams from North Bay schools competed in eight robotics events held at the Elsie Allen High School gym.

The competition, organized by the Sonoma County Office of Education and in its 19th year, gives K-8 students the chance to demonstrate their understanding of science, technology, engineering and math using Lego robots and microcontrollers, said Rick Phelan, the event director.

Phelan, a semiretired teacher, who’s been organizing the event since its inception, said the robotics challenge allows kids to exercise their brain power in the same spirit of competition that young athletes showcase their physical skills.

It also teaches kids that teamwork and cooperation can be exciting, and are crucial skills for future careers in technology and science. “These are 21st century skills,” Phelan said.

In the Bull in a China Shop event, robots had to knock 10 objects off the edge of a circular ring in the shortest possible time.

Tyler’s robot was equipped with a long arm designed to sweep objects before pushing them off the ringed table, repeating the motion several times. But on its first pushing motion, an object lodged under a ground sensor and the robot ran off the table, unable to detect the edge of the ring.

At least that’s what Bower deduced as he analyzed the robot’s failure.

Ben Wien, Bower’s science and technology teacher at Mill Valley Middle School, said he emphasizes the benefits of teamwork.

“I really try to create the space for these kids to do that and collaborate with each other,” he said.

Gravenstein Elementary School students Mia Peritore and Iris Huang, both 11, came out on top in the drag racing competition. The Sebastopol school sent a total of 32 competitors, so the cheers were thunderous when Peritore and Huang’s robotic dragster won the event, which was limited to grades 4 to 6.

Their robotic vehicle, named Ravioli, was a last minute build, said Peritore and performed better than their original design, which had a wider base and tended to deviate of course. Huang was in charge of the gears and coding, while Peritore did a lot of the troubleshooting, the girls said.

“The coding was a real challenge,” said Peritore. “It was going backwards a lot.”

Peritore said her dream is to attend Stanford University, while Huang would either like to become an engineer or a therapist.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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