The announcement was a shocker: Last June, Dos Pueblos High School’s esteemed Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) abruptly retired its award-winning robotics team. Just like that, dozens of schoolkids had lost their robot baby before it had even been born. While most of the students simply shrugged and dove into the academy’s replacement curriculum — a multidisciplinary mechatronics program — a handful of kids couldn’t shake the loss. So, last fall — independent of DPEA and privately bankrolled by an impressive lineup of individuals and corporate sponsors — they created their own robotics team.
They call themselves Riviera Robotics, and their creation — essentially a remote-control tank that can spin on a dime, scramble over obstacles, and shoot baskets with Curry-esque accuracy — recently posted podium finishes and rookie honors at competitions in Ventura and Boise, Idaho, winning the team an invite to the 2016 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship, held next week in St. Louis, Missouri. The event is expected to draw 900 teams from 39 countries.
Dos Pueblos senior Kally Zheng leads Riviera Robotics’ team of 22 Dos Pueblos students and one from San Marcos High School. “I quit [DPEA] to make sure this happened,” Kally said recently inside a barn in the Goleta foothills, where the team has built a workshop and a quarter-scale replica of the championship game field. During competition, their robot will battle others during a “castle siege” that involves scoring points for scooping up and launching dodgeballs through tower windows.
“It was a huge disappointment to me when [DPEA] shut down the robotics program,” Zheng said. “There was still a lot of interest in robotics. At first we wanted to start a robotics club at school, but soon I knew that the only way we could do it was to start a team ourselves.”
“I am glad there is an opportunity for students to participate in FIRST Robotics in our community, and that folks interested in keeping it going organized themselves and made it happen,” said DPEA founder Amir Abo-Shaeer.
As Zheng’s resolve took hold early on, she and a few classmates drove door-to-door around Goleta’s business parks to ask for donations. Businesses typically chipped in a couple thousand dollars here and there, she said, plus they’d donate tools, techniques, and materials. Families pitched in too, writing checks and providing other assets, including that rent-free barn where the kids set up shop. A big boon came in January, when philanthropist and robotics fan Virgil Elings — who gave $1 million to DPEA in 2009 — donated $25,000 to Zheng’s team. So far, Riviera has drummed up roughly $40,000 in financial support, much of it processed through nonprofit channels at Dos Pueblos. “We figured it would take us a year to get everything lined up, but there was so much support that we were able to start last fall,” she said.
While the team itself is mentored by a handful of established engineers — some of whom are Dos Pueblos and UCSB graduates — the birth and growth of Riviera Robotics has been a student-run, volunteer effort. And with the championship event just around the corner, the workdays are getting long. The team meets at the barn pretty much daily, with all-day weekend shifts and after-school hours typically stretching to midnight. Riviera Robotics is Team 5818 at the 2016 FIRST Championship. Competition begins April 27.