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Goleta Students’ Riviera Robotics Team Picks Up Where Its Members Left Off

Less than a year after Dos Pueblos High retired immensely popular robotics team, a program founded by former members competed at international championships

Riviera Robotics Team 5818 wins the FRC Idaho Regional Rookie All-Star Award.
Riviera Robotics Team 5818 wins the FRC Idaho Regional Rookie All-Star Award. (Riviera Robotics photo)

For many Texas high school students, football is life. For many Los Angeles South Bay high school students, volleyball is life. And for many Dos Pueblos High School students in Goleta, robotics is life.

So when the Dos Pueblos High School Engineering Academy retired its robotics program, there was only one thing for students to do: form their own.

Several months after the immensely popular robotics team closed down for good, three former members started Riviera Robotics, which competed this year in its first international championship.

The program was founded by Dos Pueblos students Kally Zheng, president of the club; Graham Wren, director of operations; and Amy Dixon, the program’s student fabrication leader.

Riviera Robotics boasts 22 members, many of whom are in DPHS’s Engineering Academy, and is open to high schoolers from around the greater Santa Barbara area.

Currently, the DPHS students are joined by one San Marcos High student and a Santa Barbara City College student, and the program is in the process of getting the word out at Santa Barbara High School.

The latest incarnation of local high school robotics is more than just a group of tinkerers meeting in someone’s garage — or, in this case, their lead mentor’s barn.

After already forming the corporation Riviera Robotics in the state of California, the founders are submitting paperwork to make the club into a legitimate nonprofit.

Individual sponsors have already given hundreds and in one case, thousands, of dollars to the program, which boasts over a dozen corporate sponsors, mostly local engineering and industrial companies.

Like all high school robotics teams, Riviera competes in competitions by FIRST, an international youth robotics organization.

Riviera Robotics Team 5818’s robot takes on the FIRST Stronghold field at the 2016 FRC Idaho Regional. Click to view larger
Riviera Robotics Team 5818’s robot takes on the FIRST Stronghold field at the 2016 FRC Idaho Regional. (Riviera Robotics photo)

“We started telling parents and actually reaching out to the FIRST regional mentor advisor for Southern California, and he actually helped get us in contact with Andrew Duerner, who is our lead mentor, and Jason Farnam, who is a UCSB mentor of ours,” said Zheng.

“Andrew, who had mentored past years on (Dos Pueblos’) team, asked other mentors he had previously worked with if they’d be interested in mentoring our team.”

The program now has six mentors from the fields of engineering, electrical design, business, computer programming, outreach, and finance. These mentors help guide the six departments — software, fabrication, electronics, system design, public relations, and drivers — which are also led by student leaders.

The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy announced the retirement of its popular robotics team, called D’Penguineers, last June, saying in a letter to the class of 2016 that “learning objectives and outcomes simply must be prioritized over other considerations by an educational institution.”

Taking over as the Academy’s new senior capstone project is a mechatronics project that involves “the comprehensive design, prototyping, fabrication, exhibition, and then installation of a museum-quality kinetic exhibit,” according to the program.

The sudden shuttering of the D’Penguineers shocked its members, many of whom arranged their social, academic, and work lives around it, and both students and mentors protested the decision at a subsequent meeting of the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

The program consistently garnered awards at the international FIRST robotics competition, which it regularly attended.

Many of the D’Penguineers’ former members have now returned to the FIRST championships — but this time with the Riviera Robotics team. 

“We would meet every day — usually for at least five or six hours,” said DPHS senior Nick Katzer, the program’s student system-design leader.

The robotics competitions are held and governed by FIRST Robotics Competition. Programs compete in regional-level events before the international championship, which was April 27-30 in St. Louis, Missouri.

According to FRC data, 3,128 teams from 24 countries participated in its 2016 season. Riviera Robotics — Team 5818 — was one of 397 “rookie” teams making its competition debut.

Competitions pit robots weighing up to 120 pounds and charged by 12-volt batteries against each other in tasks like shooting a basketball into a hoop and setting an inner tube up on a rack.

This year’s challenge, “Stronghold,” was medieval-themed and required robots to breach opponents’ defenses and even climb up their castle tower.

Teams get six weeks to build, program, and perfect their robots, and at one point, said Zheng, theirs could successfully navigate all the match’s challenges.

Unfortunately, the team hit a considerable road block in St. Louis.

“World didn’t go exactly how we wanted,” she said.

The code the team had written was tuned into the Wi-Fi in their practice space, Katzer said. The competition did not have the bandwidth they had expected, and Riviera had had trouble getting their code across the bandwidth that was available.

In the end, Riviera won six of its 10 matches, in which teams compete in alliances of three against each other. In three of the four matches the team lost, their partners’ robots died, and Riviera’s Wi-Fi issues prevented them from “carrying” as they had in previous tournaments, in which their robot is good enough to single-handedly outscore the other alliance.

There was some consolation, however: Riviera Robotics finished the world championship as the best rookie team in their subdivision.

Also, said Zheng, “the team that we lost our Ventura regional to won the whole entire world championship.”

With 2016’s season in the books, the team has two primary goals for next year.

“We’d like to expand even further,” junior Nick Mata said. “I think we definitely have the opportunity to get people from Santa Barbara High School.”

The other goal is to find and establish their own workspace.

The hope, said Zheng, is that Riviera Robotics will finally receive nonprofit status by the end of the summer, which will open up more logistical and organizational doors for the program.

No one can dispute how Riviera Robotics has proven the engineering prowess of its members over the last few months. But what its accomplishments this season have perhaps most forcefully driven home is the tenacity of students who have discovered their passion.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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