By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter
A team of about 40 Westside teens—Palisadians Sofia Williams and Leonardo Nasta among them—took their team all the way to a robotics world championship last month—and they did so as major underdogs.
They were participants in the FIRST Robotics Competition, hosted by the eponymous STEM organization. FIRST has a mission to help young people foster interest and develop skills in science, technology, engineering and math, with wide-scale competitions that challenge teams of students to develop and compete with their own inventions.
Williams and Nasta participated in the FIRST Robotics Competition as part of a team of students from Santa Monica’s New Roads School. They were given just six weeks to design, build and program a robot capable of playing challenging field games with and against other machines in massive competitions.
Their robot was so successful that they passed through regional rounds in both Long Beach and Las Vegas, punching their ticket to the competition’s Worlds level, held in Houston from April 19-22.
They faced off against teams representing their home country, from Israel to China, many of whom boasted mega-sponsors such as Boeing and Disney.
Williams and Nasta’s team was significantly smaller in their number of student-members and mentors, and while they received enthusiastic support from New Roads, they didn’t have any other sponsors. The fact that they made it to Worlds in the first place was an improbable triumph of hard work and skill.
While the 11 members of the team who could make the trip to Houston didn’t return with the competition’s ultimate prize, they said the experience was one for a lifetime.
Williams said the sense of collaboration—even at the competition’s highest level—was incredible.
“I thought it was going to be more competitive—that we weren’t going to be talking to other teams very much,” she told the Palisadian-Post. Instead, “teams were always jumping at the chance to help you.”
Williams said if another team noticed her group struggling to repair their ‘bot, they would lend advice, spare parts or even just an extra set of hands at a moment’s notice.
The Worlds atmosphere also lent to cultural exchanges—Williams enjoyed meeting teams from around the world, many of whom brought candies or other representations of home to share.
FIRST fosters this friendly approach to competition at all of their events, even building it in to the head-to-head games themselves: Participants are paired randomly with other teams’ robots and have to complete tasks together on the game field.
The value of such a welcoming, collaborative environment rings especially true to Williams. As a young woman who only recently fell in love with developing technology, she said it’s important to encourage more girls to engage with STEM, in school and in their careers.
“It’s considered more of a boys’ field,” she told the Post. “It’s something that looks really intimidating from the outside … I want to teach young girls: ‘You’re fully capable of it.’”
Williams will be back on the New Roads team next year as a senior, when they build another robot in hopes of reaching an even higher place in the contest’s ranks.
To do so, it will be crucial for her team to gain some outside sponsors. Limited funding for tools, travel and entrance fees present significant barriers for a small team like New Roads’.
They’ve already thrived as the underdogs—now they’re looking to level the playing field.