Last week, 32 students and eight mentors from the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy traveled to St. Louis, Mo., for the FIRST Robotics Challenge World Championships.

The FIRST Team 1717 has competed at the championship four times previously in its five-year history. After spending more than four months and 500 hours each on their robot, the 32 students of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy were finally given the opportunity to compete on the international stage.

This year, more than 350 teams from all around the world competed for the title under St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome. Teams were separated into four divisions: Archimedes, Curie, Galileo and Newton. Practice matches began Thursday morning and qualification matches followed soon after, continuing all day Friday. This year, Team 1717 competed against 88 other teams in the Curie Division for a spot in the ultimate finals on the Einstein Field.

“Championships is definitely a different experience from any other regional,” said Connie Phung, DPEA Team 1717 member. “There are about five times as many robots and teams in St. Louis than at the regional competitions. There are four competitions occurring at the same exact time on four fields.”

Team 1717 suffered a brief scare early on in a practice match Thursday when their robot was hit hard by another robot.

“The claw of our robot was slammed into a tower, bending its base plate,” Team 1717 member Patrick Holmes said. “But after some quick repairs, we were back on the field in full color a short time later.”

Matches this year consist of a game in which robots place inflated geometrical game pieces on pegs on a wall, with points awarded for placing the pieces in the best order. In the last few seconds of each match, a “minibot” is deployed to climb a pole for bonus points.

In their initial day of ranking matches, Team 1717 played four matches, winning three. Their robot, named Penguinbot VI, dominated several matches with its swerve-drive train and elevator lifting system. One match was won with a tight score of 97-94, boosting Team 1717’s ranking points and propelling it to the No. 1 ranked team in its division. After a hard loss two matches later, though, Team 1717 would eventually end Thursday’s qualifying events in fourth place.

Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Director Amir Abo-Shaeer, left, confers with Team 1717 members between matches.

Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Director Amir Abo-Shaeer, left, confers with Team 1717 members between matches. (Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy photo)

Penguinbot VI’s minibot was working extraordinarily well, helping secure several wins for Team 1717. Minibots are deployed in the last 10 seconds of each match and race to the top of a steel pole, with the first to finish clinching an extra 30 points for its team. In the last few weeks, the D’Penguineers have taken the opportunity to lighten their minibot and optimize its performance (refined the drive rollers and motor placement to make the minibot even faster and more efficient), shaving almost a half-second off its climb time. Additionally, Team 1717 also reworked its forklift to run at a much faster speed, lifting game pieces up to their scoring positions extremely quickly and accurately.

On Friday, they continued to win, and win big with scores of 130-65 and 128-68. After nine qualifying matches, Team 1717’s PenguinBot VI was ranked second. Two more matches remained Saturday morning. The top eight teams were guaranteed a spot in the finals. The champions from each fielded then progressed to the ultimate final matches on Saturday afternoon on the main field: Einstein.

Friday night they were treated to a concert in the St. Louis Sports Arena by the Black Eyed Peas and Willow Smith.’s mother has become a volunteer working with Dean Kamen’s (founder of FIRST) mother. The concert was a great surprise and acknowledgment that robots and entertainers can be just as cool.

The D’Penguineers continued to win convincingly Saturday morning, winning their final qualification match. They held firmly to their second-place position, which ensured them a spot in the final alliance selection process for their fields finals. The top eight teams selected two teams to join them to participate in the elimination rounds to crown a champion on their individual field.

They then faced off against other teams in best-of-three matches where the loser goes home and the winner progresses to the ultimate final world champion rounds. The ranking process progressed rapidly with DP selecting the eighth-ranked team, Team HOT No. 67, a three-time world champion from Michigan, to be their partner. Throughout the qualifying matches, all of the team members scouted the other teams for this final selection process. Unique individual mechanical skill and strategic talent make some lower numerically ranked teams more desirable. DP was thrilled to be able to select Team 67. Together, teams 1717 and 67 then selected Team 2751 from South Carolina.

The arena was a riot of color and intense noise with hundreds of teams screaming for their teams. Neon spiked hair and costumed mascots were plentiful. Intense enthusiasm and energy filled the arena as teams cheered their teams on. Think Final Four or the World Series, just with robots and thousands of aspiring engineers.

The finals brought a much higher level of competition, with the best of the division fighting to progress to the ultimate finals in the afternoon. The first quarterfinal match showed the speed and power of the PenguinBot as one of its alliance members died soon into the match. DP had to push them out of the way to clear the scoring zone. They were also the first up with the mini-bot, winning 109-78. The second quarterfinal was all Team 1717, placing three complete logos and first up the mini-bot tower. Big win to progress to semifinals: 123-51.

The first semifinal match was a very physical contest with serious bot-bashing and defensive maneuvering. DP once again placed three logos, then deployed their bot, but suffered a very tight loss: 106-115. The tiebreaker was killing to watch, with intense defense on the PenguinBot.

“A defender smashed us several times while we set up to deploy the mini-bot, and ultimately we were not able to deploy at all,” Team 1717 member Noah Connally said.

The judges debated for several very long minutes, and finally announced a nailbiting win for the PenguinBot’s alliance: 114-110. So a tie breaker followed to decide who would progress to the finals. Another super intense competition had everyone on their feet.

It came down to the mini-bots and the bonus points: 120-131 — a shocking and painful loss. But making it to the finals and as far as the last semifinal round places the PenguinBot VI and Team 1717 among the top 25 robots and teams out of the 350-plus that competed.

Once again, the D’Penguineer’s did extremely well, finishing the World Championships within the top 20 out of more than 350 teams. Team members were exhilarated to have made it so far in the finals.

“It was more satisfying to see the quality and performance of our robot than the outcome of the competition,” Aislinn Dunne said.

The end of the championships marks a bigger transition as all of Team 1717’s members are seniors, graduating in a month. The FIRST Robotics season was truly the capstone experience that DPEA Director Amir Abo-Shaeer hoped it to be.

— Patrick Holmes, Noah Connally, Megha Manjunath, Aislinn Dunne and Connie Phung are seniors in the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.