St. George team competes in world championship robotics competition

In this file photo, robotics team the PrestidigiTaters compete in the Utah State FIRST Tech Challenge Championship, date not specified. | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A team composed of six teens from St. George high schools competed successfully in a world championship robotics competition over the weekend.

The PrestidigiTaters’ robot is prepared for action, date and location not specified. | Photo courtesy of the PrestidigiTaters, St. George News

The team, known as the PrestidigiTaters, competed in Houston, Texas, Friday and Saturday in the “FIRST Tech Challenge,” a league in the “First” program developed by famed engineer Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.

“We finished 17th out of 64 teams in our division,” Jay Sneddon, the team’s assistant coach, said. “Teams from all over the world were here, so we’re pretty proud of what our kids got done.”

Team members include Madi Allen (Success Academy and Dixie High School), Bailee Allen (Success Academy and Dixie High School), McCade Larsen (Success Academy and Dixie High School), Kason Peacock (Success Academy and Desert Hills High School), Derek Sneddon (Desert Hills High School) and Dallin Bundy (Dixie High School) with coaches Curtis Larsen, Brian Allen, DJ Holt and Jay Sneddon.

The team’s name, the PrestidigiTaters, is a play on the word prestidigitation, meaning finger magic, and potatoes, the team members’ favorite food. They dressed the part as magicians with top hats and capes and all sorts of spud-inspired paraphernalia.

The PrestidigiTaters joined another team from Park City as first-time contestants from Utah for their division.

The team has achieved many victories since competition season began in January, including becoming Utah State Champions before taking sixth place out of 73 teams at the West Super Regionals in Tacoma, Washington, which included competitors from 14 western states.

Members of the PrestidigiTaters meet with other teams at the FIRST World Championship, Houston, Texas, April 20, 2017 | Photo courtesy of the PrestidigiTaters, St. George News

“The kids on this particular team represent St. George amazingly well,” Sneddon said. “They’re ambassadors, they’re meeting kids from all over the world, and they’ve made connections with them.”

In the First Tech Challenge, high school-aged students are challenged to design, build and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams’ creations.

“The goal is to build a robot that fits in an 18 inch cube that actually performs different functions,” Sneddon said of the challenge. “We have to do some shooting … the robot has to be able to push some buttons and also lift up what we call a cab ball, which is the size of a good sized beach ball or exercise ball.”

The complex challenge requires skilled use of both hardware and software utilizing uniquely crafted code. The kids incorporated the use of CAD, or computer-aided design, for prototyping purposes and worked through a great deal of troubleshooting to get their robot just right.

“Our kids have really done some amazing things,” Sneddon said. “For example, the shooter they have was designed so that there’s a flywheel mechanism that has to speed up to the rpm’s before the ball can travel the correct distance. And they programed that in software so the mechanism will not shoot until that flywheel is at the right speed. I mean, it’s just incredible.”

The team even designed an autonomous portion, a self-piloting mechanism that allows the robot to self-correct if it knocks off course.

The PrestidigiTaters pose with their robot at the FIRST West Super Regionals, Tacoma, Washington, March 10, 2017 | Photo courtesy of the PrestidigiTaters, St. George News

“They studied how it works, and then they programmed it to make it happen,” Sneddon said. “It’s some brilliant code – brilliant.”

Their genius was not only on display for parents and judges, but also recruiters from both tech companies and over 70 universities looking to scoop the nation’s top budding engineering talent.

“We had a student that was offered an internship with Nvidia while we were here. We have colleges that are openly recruiting our kids,” Sneddon said, “MIT is here recruiting, Harvard’s here recruiting.”

Schools like MIT look for students already engaged in engineering before they even enter college, Sneddon said, and participation in competitions like First act as major qualifications for admission.

“It is eye-opening and at the same time reassuring that the kids from Southern Utah can compete – they have as good an engineering mindset as anybody in the world at their age,” Sneddon said. “And we have learned that our kids can compete with anybody.”

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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