Priory wins regional robotics contest


The word "Woodside" appears in the name of the high school that placed highly at the Silicon Valley regional robotics competition, held April 1-3 in San Jose, but for a change it was not Woodside High, normally a powerhouse.

Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley took first place with its barn2robotics team, in concert with its allies at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose and High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego.

"This is the first year we've won anything," Priory science teacher and team mentor Bob Bessin told the Almanac. "We've been doing it for a long while and never got past the preliminary rounds. The kids really came together this year."

Woodside High won the Imagery Award. The regional contests are held under the umbrella of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), founded in 1989 by Segway inventor Dean Kamen.

With its victory, the Priory qualifies for the national competition, to be held April 27-30 in St. Louis.

Mr. Bessin is one of three adult team mentors for the team, which has had from 12 to 20 students on any given night in the campus barn that serves as a lab and construction space. Parents and a part-time worker at the Tech Shop in Menlo Park are also on hand.

The team this year includes two freshmen and four seniors; the rest are sophomores and juniors. There are three girls, one of whom is co-president, Mr. Bessin said. Experience with robotics starting in middle school is not uncommon, he added.

"We really rely on the general knowledge and experience of everyone to bring us together," he said. Some are great programmers, some great with computer aided design, and many are quick studies. "They're just sponges," Mr. Bessin said. "They know more about bolts and metal than I do at this point."

Robotics at the Priory is 10 years old. The program's corner of the barn is equipped with lathes, drill presses, "all kinds of stuff," he said.

A typical robot consists of sheet metal, aluminum mostly, and components that each team receives but that often need resizing with a machine tool. Dimensions and weight limits are very specific to ensure a fair fight. "Lightness is very important," he said.

Also important: lessons that naturally arise out of such an enterprise. The kids learn to work as a team in close quarters, to rely on one another, to meet deadlines and communicate well, Mr. Bessin said.

These qualities carry into the competition in the form of "gracious professionalism," a sharing of tools and knowledge and getting to know other people and schools. "It really kind of gets them out of their shells, so to speak," he said.

Go to to see a contest. The three-robot teams are on the same field together under remote control and vie to place colored rings on extended posts while blocking the other team's efforts.

Some robots are better at one thing than another. The Priory's machine was maneuverable and quick and thus focused on protecting its teammates' machines and interfering with those of the opposition, Mr. Bessin said.

Young team

What happened to Woodside High? Many team leaders and designers graduated and the new kids had to work things out for themselves, robotics coach and biology teacher Arlene Kolber said in an interview.

"We have a very young team this year," she said. "It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. That tells you one reason why we weren't up there (winning), and that's good," she added. "There's nothing to learn when everything goes right. Our kids have had that experience and do every year. ... If they fail at something, we let them do it. It's their robot."

"They were changing the design every few minutes," she said. "We kicked them in the rear a couple of times. It doesn't always work."

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