ST. GEORGE — Two Utah State University Extension 4-H robotics clubs recently received top awards at FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics championship events.
The Nerf Herders and PrestidigiTaters 4-H clubs will be representing Washington County at national FIRST competitions in Carlsbad, California and Houston, Texas, respectively.
FIRST Lego League (FLL) introduces young people ages 9-14 to the fun and excitement of science and technology. Recognizing these dynamics, the Utah 4-H program offered through Utah State University Extension in Washington County “… concentrates on STEM education to empower and train youth to thrive in tomorrow’s economy. Seeing that vision take root throughout Utah is exciting,” said Extension Associate Professor Paul Hill.
The Nerf Herders are an FLL, Star Wars-loving 4-H robotics team. Made up of four sixth-graders – Gage Schmutz, Max Torres, Austin Crosby, Joseph Tsai – and two eighth-graders – Luke Iverson and Jordan Crosby – these driven young engineers have adopted for their motto a quote by Han Solo: “Never tell me the odds.”
When the Nerf Herders club first formed, they knew very little about robotics, but loved Legos, Star Wars and having fun. The team continues learning and embracing the FLL core values, including “cooperation” and “gracious professionalism” while honing invaluable life skills such as research, public speaking, teamwork, problem solving and much more.
Motivated through competition, the Nerf Herders design, build and program their robots to compete against other teams, and their decision-making techniques have produced a successful track record.
Competing in FIRST events has collected them the Research Award, Champions Award (Regional Level) twice, second place Overall Utah South State Champion Award, and qualified them for state competition the last three years. Most recently, the Nerf Herders took first place in the Utah South FLL state championship held at Dixie State University, qualifying them to compete at the North American FLL International Open Championship at Legoland in Carlsbad, California, May 18-20. The team is very excited and working hard to raise funds to attend this championship event.
The PrestidigiTaters are a 4-H club of high school-age students from across Washington County who compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), a robot competition with over 5,000 teams worldwide. Now in its third season, the team has grown more successful each year. The team’s name combines prestidigitation (hand magic) and potatoes (being avid potato consumption enthusiasts), which has given them a great theme for team unity and for standing out at competitions.
Current PrestidigiTaters team members are Bailee Allen, McCade Larsen, Kason Peacock, Dallin Bundy, Derek Sneddon, Aubree Miller and Hunter Phillips. As teen leaders, the PrestidigiTaters demonstrate their mastery of computer science, robotics and problem-solving by “paying it forward” through outreach STEM clinics, helping other teams, providing demonstrations at elementary schools and much more. The seven team members have spent over 500 combined hours this season on outreach events, reaching over 1,500 people.
At the FTC Utah State Championship, they received the second-place INSPIRE Award, advancing them to the super-regional competition held in Spokane, Washington. After competing against 72 teams at the regional event, the PrestidigiTaters once again earned the chance to compete at the FTC World Championship in Houston, Texas, April 18-21. Last year was the first year a team from Utah has made it that far.
“The Taters have worked hard to have a great performing robot, a world-class Engineering Notebook – a journal of over 300 pages that documents team meetings, CAD, outreach events, decision-making, etc. – and a team presence that represents Southern Utah well,” parent and volunteer 4-H club leader Brian Allen said.
Curtis Larsen, another parent and volunteer 4-H club leader, said: “For competition, the team custom builds a robot that fits within an 18-inch cube size limit and competes in a challenge that changes each year, with different tasks for the robot to complete. Many teams use different parts kits to assemble their bot, but the PrestidigiTaters have chosen to almost entirely customize their robotic parts. The team has learned to use CAD to design their parts, and 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC routers to fabricate their parts. The brain of the robot is an Android cell phone running custom Java software written by the team.”
Far more than just a robotics competition, FIRST provides a large emphasis on “gracious professionalism,” ethics and character.
“It’s a big investment, but the return on that investment is huge,” Nerf Herders volunteer 4-H club leader Andrea Schmutz said. “Shy students blossom into outgoing, dynamic, confident team members, and all learn to experience the excitement of doing something that seemed like only magic before.”
The Nerf Herders and PrestidigiTaters said they hope other kids will see through their example that nothing is beyond their reach and that they, too, can accomplish great things. As they would say in the words of Jedi Master Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Both teams are seeking additional funds to help pay for their upcoming competitions. Donations to 4-H clubs, which are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, may be made online through Venmo or by mailing a check to the following address:
USU Extension 4-H
c/o PrestidigiTaters 4-H club and/or Nerf Herders 4-H club
197 E. Tabernacle St.
St. George, UT 84770