The FedEx truck that arrived on a recent Friday afternoon at Madera High School came to take away a robot locked inside a wooden crate.
A roughly 1,800-mile journey, from the San Joaquin Valley to Houston, was ahead.
The students in the high school’s mechanics shop who built the robot were staying put – until this week, when the 15-member Madtown Robotics team arrives for the FIRST Robotics Championship held every year in Houston.
Before they left, they got unexpected news: Madtown is ranked No. 1 in the world. They’re hoping to stay on top.
How good are they? Roughly 10 percent better than the next team scheduled to compete, according to a March analysis released by the competition’s organizers. Teams are judged based on their performances – how fast the robot can travel and how well it can score.
Madtown is undefeated through two regional competitions. The Houston competition is Wednesday-Saturday.
It’s the first time the Madera Unified team has achieved the high ranking, and it’s the closest they have come to the robotics championship.
“Being No. 1 is great because everyone wants to play with us. The only bad thing is you gotta come in ready to play,” says Ranjit Chahal, one of the team’s mentors.
The Houston competition gathers about 400 teams from various divisions nationally and includes international teams from Canada, Ecuador, China and Australia. Last year, Madtown was fourth in the Houston competition won by the San Jose Cheesy Poofs.
“We’ve learned a lot in the last three or four years in terms of competitive play,” Chahal says, adding the formula to winning: “It’s a little bit of luck, it’s a little bit of skill. It takes both.”
Growing as a team
Last week team members were working on other robots in the shop after their robot was shipped. Each season, teams get six weeks to build new robots.
Rajan Baines, a sophomore on the team, joined last year before he knew much about industrial or manufacturing technologies.
“I didn’t know how to even use a wrench. I probably didn’t even know what a wrench was,” Baines says. “Now I know what a wrench is.”
He’s learned much more than just how to use a wrench. He helps assemble the robots following computer-generated prototypes and then creating the real thing, typically by making a wood model first and then the final metal fabrication. At the competition, he is part of the pit crew that prepares the robot for the next match.
Kristen McKenna, director of College and Career Readiness at Madera Unified, says the Madtown Robotics club has matured and become more competitive. She credits team mentors like Chahal who step in to help the students: “They really respond to that.”
Team adviser Vernon Valmonte says the students will have spent on average about 150 hours in the robotics shop by the time the championship comes around. Some contribute about 200 hours.
Being competititve and together so much has helped the team grow, Valmonte says: “Having sophomores and freshmen all the way to seniors all the way to alumni all the way to a 40-year-old guy, there’s definitely a lot of collaboration that goes into it.
“The final product that comes out is just amazing.”
How to help
The team has set up a GoFundMe page, Team 1323 to World Champs, to cover the cost of the trip.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez