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FARMINGTON – In a foam-padded pen in a classroom filled with bolts and nuts, students at Navajo Preparatory School are up to serious business — namely, building, engineering and coding championship-winning robots.

On Feb. 15 a team of Navajo Prep students won the Albuquerque VRC Robotics League Championship with robots they designed, engineered, built and computer programmed themselves at Navajo Prep.

The competition called for students across the state to build robots that could place various colored cubes into plastic containers suspended above a playing field, and stack similar cubes into neat towers. 

Students then had to program the robots to operate independently of human control for 15 seconds, and then be able to drive and operate the robots using a remote control in a race to stack the most cubes against an opposing team in a two-minute time frame.

Navajo Prep seniors Adriano Begay and Ian Whitehorse piloted the robots during the competition in an alliance with another robotics team from Cibola High School in Albuquerque. They won the final round against another team from Cibola High and a team of home school students called R4Robotics from Rio Rancho.  

The Navajo Prep team built two robots, one that would lift the cubes into the suspended plastic containers — which the students nicknamed “Deborah” — and another robot that could stack the cubes, which they nicknamed “Eagle Three.”

Begay said it took the team about two months to build both robots, which they tweak and fix regularly to improve performance.

“It’s STEM in a robot box,” said Mike Gordon, the computer science and robotics teacher at Navajo Prep, who also coached the robotics team. The acronym refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

Gordon said students had to learn how to build the robots from scratch, then use computer programming to make a robot both run independently and be able to be controlled at other times by student drivers with remote controls. He said the combination of challenges encompassed all the subjects in the STEM acronym.

For Gordon, building and competing with these robots is also a chance for students to learn the value of cooperation.

“This whole concept of teamwork is very important in this process,” Gordon said. He had earlier compared the competition to team athletics like basketball, as students have designated roles to play on the robotics team as well.

For the students, their experience on the team is a chance to not only sharpen their skills in STEM subjects, but also a way discover what they want to pursue as careers in the future. 

For Begay, future plans include studying architectural engineering at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

“I think this played a role in helping me understand engineering,” Begay said.

For Whitehorse it’s studying electrical engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe to learn how to build power systems “to bring it back to the rez and the people that live way out there.”

The Navajo Prep Robotics team will compete in the 2020 New Mexico VEX Robotics VRC State Championship on Feb. 29 at Garfield STEM Magnet Middle School in Albuquerque.

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.

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