Thomas Jefferson

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Honing their Motor Skills

Posted 12/02/2022 by Mattie Brightwell

Claire Mahoney works with the team’s CNC, a machine that’s used to seamlessly and near-perfectly cut materials. photo by Shana Saint-Phard

Sparta Robotica students work hard every day to prepare for competitions and individually prepare for colleges and careers in STEM.

The Thomas Jefferson High School Robotics team is a part of the school’s well-established Center for Communications and Technology Magnet program. The program consists of a series of classes taught by teacher Matthew Santambrogio and over the ten years that robotics has been a part of TJ, they’ve grown significantly. “We started off as an after school club, with 11 students or so. Interest in it grew, so eventually we got a class,” Santambrogio stated. “I hope that it continues to grow and open up students to new opportunities in the future.”

There are four levels of classes, much like other programs at TJ. Each level allows students access to more and more opportunities, including intricate mechanics, professional programming software, building, and even competing against robotics teams from all over the world in high stakes competitions. As of now, there are over 150 students that are a part of robotics across all grade levels. A majority of freshmen and sophomores are in Robotics 1 and 2, though there are plenty of people who are able to climb the levels a little more quickly. According to junior Mariah Williams, Santambrogio “is great at letting people advocate for themselves, so a lot of kids climb levels pretty quickly if they can prove that they can do it.”

FIRST, a STEM program that thousands of schools are a part of, helps schools to host the competitions that the TJ Robotics team, Sparta Robotica, competes in. FIRST is an acronym: “For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology.” FIRST makes it their main goal to inspire young people across the globe to take part in science and technology, and to strive for careers in STEM. 

FIRST also founded the More Than campaign, which aims to “dismantle labels for kids and promote self-esteem through STEM,” as stated on their website. They have a documentary out on Disney+, called More Than Robots that was introduced in 2022, covering the way that FIRST Robotics Competitions, or FRC, have impacted the lives of their participants from around the world. 

Many students here at TJ have been influenced to consider colleges and careers in technology, including junior Claire Mahoney, who is currently working hard to make it into her dream school, Colorado School of Mines. Mahoney mentions how being a part of TJ’s robotics program since her freshman year and participating in FRC has inspired her to go to school for Automated Mechanics. “I went to a women in STEM program in the fourth grade, and I sat with the girls from Mines. I was suddenly fascinated with STEM, and realized that this is what I want to do with my life. They’re the reason I’m here now and this class is helping me to reach my dream.” 

Every year, Sparta Robotica prepares to take part in different FRC competitions, and the Robotics level 3 and 4 classes spend several hours hard at work in order to do so. They often spend lunch periods, off periods, and weekends perfecting their work and rigorously testing their robots in various situations. Robotics 1 and 2 classes aim to lay the foundation for students to eventually commit to their team and reach the level at which they will be able to compete. 

The most recent competition was last year in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the team competed nationally and ended up 16th out of 49 teams. Their bot, named Betty White, was built primarily to be able to drive and collect oversized tennis balls, and then shoot them at different targets high above the ground. The bot was also able to climb up a diagonal ladder using a motorized climbing system that allowed the bot to pull itself upwards.

As they prepare for the FRC season in the 2023 spring semester, the team strives to explore possibilities in swerve drive, which is a specific type of drive train, a system that controls how the bot moves. Swerve allows the bot to essentially glide across the floor, due to its mechanized wheels all moving independently from one another. The team also gets to explore other projects in their off season such as repairing and testing old robots, practicing programming, and working with other projects that further their abilities. 

The team asks that as the FRC season comes up, TJ helps to support them. “Check out instagram, help us spread the word, come cheer for us at competitions,” requested one of the team’s seniors, Kendall Seils. Seils has been a part of the robotics program since her freshman year, and aspires to go to MIT after high school. She’s been a devoted member of the program for all four years of her time at TJ, and looks forward to her final FRC season with the team. Students can follow the robotics instagram at @frc3648tjspartans. 

Overall, the program is an outstanding part of our school– it inspires dozens of people each year to find their places in STEM, and helps kids make it towards colleges and careers in tech and engineering fields. For incoming freshmen, it’s certainly a class to consider, and for those who are already a part of it, the team has altered their lives here at TJ significantly.  TJ Spartans look forward to seeing how the FRC season goes for Sparta Robotica this year, and we’ll all be cheering them on.