Navajo Prep's first after-school robotics team advances to national competition

Another of the school's STEM groups also advances in Lexus Eco Challenge

Megan Petersen
Farmington Daily Times
Navajo Prep freshman Nathan Henry, sitting, and junior Xander Jones work on Henry's robot at the school on Feb. 8.
  • Navajo Prep may offer robotics as a class next school year.
  • Preparing for the challenges teaches students how to practice engineering, team leader says.
  • School will work to integrate groups and programs to create a strong STEM foundation, administrator says.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Preparatory School’s first after-school robotics team has won the state champion title in the Vex Robotics Competition and earned an invitation to participate in the final competition in April in Louisville, Kentucky.

Navajo Prep freshmen Cade Allison and Nathan Henry and juniors Xander Jones and Logan Reano make up the school’s first after-school robotics team lead by computer science teacher Mike Gordan.

The four students have spent their time after school since October building and refining robots for the competition, which pits teams against each other in “a game-based engineering challenge,” according to the competition’s website. The challenge has teams directing their robots to pick up and stack cones, as well as transport them over obstacles, among other challenges.

The group of four competed in the regional competition in Albuquerque on Jan. 26 and 27 and won the high score, advancing them to the state competition in Las Cruces on Feb. 9 and 10, where they won against 40 of the state’s leading teams, according to Gordan.

They also won the judge’s award in Albuquerque, according to the competition website.

Navajo Prep junior Xander Jones demonstrates the Vex Robotics Competition challenge while freshman Cade Allison programs code at the school on Feb. 8.

Gordan said the school hopes to turn the afterschool robotics team into a class in the next year. Though interest in the program was high at the beginning of the school year, Gordan said some students opted out because of the time commitment, which has been significant for the inaugural team.

Jones said he has spent close to 200 hours on the project and rebuilt his robot starting from scratch about a dozen times.

“I’ve learned a lot, and you’re forced to learn a lot, because there’s hundreds of thousands of problems that you never knew were problems,” Jones said. “Ever so tiny things make this huge difference when you’re building it. Every screw on there has been moved twice, and everything on there has an exact purpose for being there. Nothing’s thrown on.”

Gordan said preparing to compete in the Vex Robotics Competition is a good example of real engineering.

“What they are doing is engineering,” Gordan said. “If you wrote a textbook case where folks are doing engineering, (this is) pretty much it, because engineering is all about build something, test it, refine, do it all again. That’s what these guys are doing.”

Navajo Prep Development Coordinator Cecelia Tso said the school is aiming to strengthen the school’s STEM programs by unifying different fields and student groups to build a strong foundation.

“There’s a bunch of STEM clubs (at Navajo Prep) and instead of students going to three or four different clubs to try and get something different — because they all offer something slightly different — what if we had a program where students went to one STEM program and had it more fleshed out and (had a) more enriched curriculum than trying to go to all these different pieces to get what they’re looking for,” Tso said.

The school is well on its way to creating a strong program with award-winning student groups. Another extracurricular STEM group at the school has advanced through the second round of a different competition and earned an additional $10,000 in scholarships.

Navajo Prep science teacher Yolanda Flores’ gifted and talented STEM program was named a winner of the second round in the Lexus Eco Challenge for a project in which they built a methane emission detector and identified sources of methane emissions in the Four Corners.

They group advanced through a first round for their research project on the lingering chemical effects of the Gold King Mine spill on the Animas River. They earned $10,000 for each round, and Flores said the group is currently working on designing and building a solar-powered home heating and cooling system for the third and final round, which could garner an additional $30,000 for the students and teachers involved and for the school.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or