Julia Montalvo, right, a Palo Alto Middle School student, helps Tyler Adams, a Killeen High School student, measure a piece of cardboard as the Shadetree Mechanics robotics team prepares to compete at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Competition in San Antonio.

Shadetree Mechanics to compete this weekend in San Antonio

By Rose L. Thayer

Killeen Daily Herald

As Shadetree Mechanics prepared for their first robotics competition last July, the group of high schoolers had no funding and used a shower curtain rod as the arm of their robot.

Now, as they prepare to head off to San Antonio to compete at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Competition against 63 teams from the U.S. and Mexico, they’ve got six sponsors and a $10,000 grant associated with the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am.

“We never ever thought we would make it to the competition,” said Josie Figueroa, whose son Roberto Figueroa is on the nine-month-old community robotics team.

“I didn’t think we would get the funding,” said Roberto Figueroa, a Shoemaker High School senior.

He moved over to Shadetree from Shoemaker and served as the team’s public relations coordinator.

He said he spent a lot of time working to get some of the teams six sponsors, which include J.C. Penney, NASA and the Texas Workforce Commission.

The registration alone for this weekend’s competition is $6,500. The students then had to round up enough money to pay for the supplies for the robot, transportation and hotel stay.

The $10,000 i.am FIRST grant was their biggest help. It was awarded to 20 rookie robot teams across the country through a partnership between J.C. Penney and Will.i.am.

The team is made up of 25 high school students from across the area, including home-schooled students. Most are striving to become engineers.

Interest in engineering

Roberto Figueroa, who spent last summer interning with NASA, said he hopes to become an astronaut.

“In robotics, you learn engineering principles you wouldn’t learn otherwise,” said Sarah Luna, president of Shadetree, who also made the switch from Shoemaker’s team for her senior year of competition.

“It’s more community outreach,” she said.

Luna and Roberto Figueroa agreed that building the robot is the best part.

“You design it and then you see it come to life,” said Luna.

For the FIRST competition, the team had six weeks to build a robot that could pick up and shoot basketballs into hoops. Shadetree’s robot weighs about 110 pounds and is painted bright green to match the team’s T-shirts.

“We used parts from a motorcycle to guide the ball to the hoops,” said Luna, who also is eyeing the $15 million in scholarships available through FIRST.

If they win, they move on to the international competition in St. Louis, Mo., which has boasted concerts by the Black Eyed Peas and Willow Smith in past years.

Josie Figueroa said she dedicates so much of her time helping the team to succeed because she sees the positive influence it has on her son.

“It’s the all-around experience — the science, the technology, the mathematics and the friends,” she said, adding that competing teams often stay in touch with each long after the competition is over. “It’s a social network, but they are learning something.”