ST. GEORGE — Despite a late start in the season, Hildale’s first youth robotics team secured their bid for the state competition after its first event on Jan. 11.
Coach Misty Nicol helped establish the team after her son Preston showed interest in programming but was unable to find resources or extracurricular activities in the field. That is when Nicol jumped into action.
“We don’t have many options for the STEM programs at our school, especially in the robotics or programming things,” she said. “There was a need.”
Nicol approach Water Canyon High School’s principal with the idea to start a FIRST LEGO League robotics team in the area. After weeks of research, she said she knew it would be a great opportunity for the kids. After the school approved the proposal, Nicol began gathering teammates and securing funding.
The Nerdy Ascending Startacular Asteroids – or Team NASA for short – is made up of seven middle- and high-school students from the Short Creek area, and each member of the team has a unique and important role. From programming and research to managing and organization, teammates Kaitlyn Barlow, Will Steed, Preston Nicol, Cody Bistline, Easton West, Kyrie Barlow and Keenan Johnson monitor themselves and their projects with the help of their coach.
First-year teams have a difficult time getting started, Nicol said, because of the high costs associated with the necessary materials. NASA secured grant money from the Utah STEM Action Center as well as funds from Water Canyon High School and Utah State University Extension’s 4-H program.
“These youth are the future of Hildale,” Hill said in a statement. “There are so many talented young people in the community that have never had the opportunity to participate in competitive youth robotics and computer science clubs.”
The team is currently running on “barebones funds” as students brainstorm fundraisers and begin asking for donations to move forward. In the future, Nicol said she is looking forward to see the program expand in the Short Creek area to include more teams.
“We don’t have access to resources like most cities would because we’re rural,” she said. “With the distance, we’re not able to have what other people have.”
Before the Jan. 11 competition, the team attended a scrimmage at Dixie State University on Dec. 14 without a robot.
“When we walked into that event our kids were pretty bummed because they could see that we weren’t prepared,” Nicol said. “We weren’t ready to compete. It was just kind of devastating.”
NASA left the scrimmage and immediately got to work. The team designed, built and programmed their robot, fine tuning details in the days leading up to the students’ first competition.
Being a first-year team, Nicol and the students didn’t know what to expect. The team was prepared to do their best but went into their first competition with a goal of simply not placing last.
Nicol said the team was focused on learning and having fun, using its first year to build the team’s skills instead of placing too much emphasis on placing first.
“We didn’t have super high hopes,” she said. “I didn’t even write down any dates of when state was going to be. That hasn’t been on our radar at all.”
After the first round of the competition, the team found themselves resting at seventh place. Already blown away by their ranking, the students finished the second round with 300 additional points, jumping up to first.
Seeing their names in first place, even if just for a moment, the team was ecstatic. The students met with the team they would be facing in their final round, content with how well they had done already. Although they didn’t win their final round, the teammates were more than happy with the outcome.
“I’ve coached (sports) for many, many years,” Nicol said. “I’ve never experienced this. I’ve never experienced the teamwork and friendly competition that I did in this event.”
Out of 45 teams, NASA ended the competition in second place and won the Champions Award, which is awarded by a panel of expert judges who evaluates the team on its core values, robot design and innovative project presentation.
There are three projects the team must have completed to compete in the FIRST LEGO League competitions, including core values, an innovation project relating to “city shaping” and the robotics component. NASA’s core values are discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.
Throughout the competition, the team is responsible for illustrating their core values through how they conduct themselves and within the competition.
The core values that NASA selected, Nicol said, naturally lend themselves to creating a positive environment for the students to pick up new skills, as well as helping the team perform well in the competition.
“These aren’t skills that they had before this,” Nicol said. “The way the FIRST LEGO League is built creates this. My team is a definite product of the amazing program the FLL offers.”
The team also worked on an innovation project that would benefit their community. Nicol said the students chose to address the increasing animal overpopulation and the “dogs at large” problem Hildale’s law enforcement has been facing. The students created ideas that could be used to help solve the issue, including educational events to help teach potential dog owners how to properly care for their animals.
Throughout the process, the students visited animal shelters and conducted research. At the end of the project, the team presented their ideas to city officials. The city approved their proposal, giving the kids the go-ahead to continue their plans and offering the city’s support.
“That was really, really cool because it gave these kids the experience to see that their ideas make a difference,” Nicol said. “That was extraordinary for the kids to see that what they say matters and their ideas are important and valued.”
Going into the state competition, Nicol said the team is working to improve their strategy and expand their focus. Overall, however, she wants to ensure that the students continue to enjoy their time and have fun.
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